Homing in – review of The Story of England by Michael Wood

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HOMING IN ON ENGLAND

The Story of England – A Village and Its People Through the Whole of English History

Michael Wood, London: Penguin, 2011, 440 pp.

Michael Wood begins with a quotation from Blake: “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” This summarises his aim, which is to zero in on one small English place and use its specific saga to tell the tale of all England from prehistory to present.

The place is Kibworth, an outwardly unremarkable assemblage of three settlements – Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt, and Smeeton Westbury – nine miles southeast of Leicester. It was chosen because it is close to the geographic centre of England and because, since 1270, parts of the township have been owned by Merton College, Oxford. Centuries of busy bursars have therefore kept voluminous records on their every transaction with their outlying asset. Such completeness is rare and, when combined with other evidence, BBC money, the author’s imaginativeness, and the interested involvement of residents, allows an unusually intimate glimpse into the private life of a place inhabited continuously for at least 2,000 years. Kibworth is “emphatically England in miniature” – a representative locus whose triumphs and travails mirror those of the rest of the country, and which will share England’s fate, for better or worse.

Even in today’s swollen settlements bestriding the busy A6, the alert chorographer can find trace elements of dizzyingly distant times – the spoor of ancient Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans somehow surviving into the pedestrian present, persisting in road routes, hedge lines, field names, and local lore.  Prehistoric people gravitated to Kibworth because of its good soil and its location straddling the watersheds of two major rivers. The Stone Age became Bronze, and the Bronze Agers elided into Iron, almost unnoticed except for the mounds that mark the graves of their important. A huge hoard of Iron Age gold and copper coins bearing “the resonant names of shadowy Corieltauvian kings” was found nearby in 2000. Romans and Romanized Kibworthians living at this “outermost edge of the known world” in their turn mislaid coins, potsherds, and tesseræ. After the Eagles were recalled to deal with sudden home emergencies, Jute and Angle ‘barbarians’ quit their stemlands and breached the Saxon Shore in earnest, turning Rome’s most peripheral province into an outpost of the Germanosphere.

Wood clearly relishes the ‘Dark Ages’ combination of imperial overthrow, natural disasters, and English national nascence. He cites The Ruin, a fragmentary eighth century poem, to indicate with what wonder more imaginative newcomers must have regarded the Roman remains they found:

Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon

burgatede burston; brosna enta geweorc

Hrofas Sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime

(“Wondrous wallstones, broken by fate; the courtyard pavements smashed, the work of giants; their roofs fallen, the cement on their gates split by frost”)

Britannia’s new “plunder-lords, deed-doers, ring-givers, leaders of men”,  who fought one another and fell on long-forgotten fields, were Germans but they incidentally invented England. One arriver, an otherwise obscure homesteader called Cybba, bequeathed his name to his worth (an Old English word meaning ‘enclosure’) and what would become the Leicestershire landscape. These pocket potentates also ensured that England would one day become a Christian country, with enormous consequences. Wood notes,

The Christian narrative is so wedded to the English story, to English culture and, till only recently, to the English sense of identity that we have tended to think it was both inevitable and a good thing . . . from the eighth century until the twentieth English history to a greater or lesser degree will be Christian.

He alludes to the apocryphal Frisian monarch

…who at the last moment stepped away from the baptismal font saying he would rather spend the next life with his brave pagan ancestors, even though in hell, than with the pallid Christians in their heaven

to make us ponder what might have been, had other rulers rejected rather than accepted the teachings of Augustine, Chad, and others. There is an amusing anecdote of Archbishop Tarsus, who was so disgusted by the understated evangelizing of Saint Chad that he lifted him onto a horse and “told him brusquely to get on with it”. (Quotations in this book are too often unattributed.)

Scandinavians in search of plunder or pasture faced off against the Britons of Wessex along this shifting ethnocultural frontline. Kibworth was just inside the Danelaw, and the numbers of the newcomers were smaller than was long imagined; recent DNA studies suggest that even in the East Midlands epicentre of Viking visitations, only around ten percent of the population were of Danish or Norwegian stock. (Elsewhere, it was between one and five percent.) The region long remained “poised on the cusp of history, between the no longer and the not yet.”

Then came other Northmen from Normandy, in small but significant numbers, to plant chivalry and feudalism largely against the wishes of the English – the latter collective noun increasingly incorporating Britons, Irish, and Scots as well as Saxons and Vikings. There commenced contumacious centuries – dynastic struggles, barons’ wars against monarchs, peasants’ revolts against barons, local risings against London, and intra-Christian disputes. Wood illustrates all these complexities through shrewdly chosen anecdotes, like those surrounding the highly symbolic figure of Simon de Montfort – a French-speaking Norman who became an exemplar of English liberties for presiding over the first English parliament. His early trajectory was full of promise, his very name hinting at a great fate. There was a Frenglish chant:

Comment hom le nome?

WHAT’S HIS NAME?

He’s called MON-FORT!

He’s in the monde and he’s big and strong;

He loves what’s right and he hates what’s wrong;

And he’ll always come out on top!

Wood juxtaposes Montfortmania neatly with the post-Evesham reality, the ex-hero’s head daintily dispatched to Lady Mortimer, his testicles affixed to his nose, while his tarred limbs were placed above Gloucester’s city gates.

It was not only war that would winnow England. The Gloucester gates that sported de Montfort’s disjecta membra in 1264 would be barred in 1348 in a forlorn attempt to keep out the Black Death – the rat-flea borne buboes that spread at almost a mile per day in that ill-starred year. The January 1349 entry in one Kibworthian’s “omen book” shows dark, hooded figures firing arrows and the inscription “The arrew smites thorow the cloth / That makus many men wel wroth.” About that time the plague announced itself, and Kibworth Harcourt suffered an estimated 70% fatality rate, the highest known in England. It left profound psychic scars; even now, the purported plague pit is unploughed.

Like all the East Midlands, Kibworth was prone to Protestantism. Wycliffe was a Leicestershire man, and some of the earliest Lollards came from Kibworth. “I smelle a Lollere in the wind,” wrote Chaucer disapprovingly. Chaucer was a courtier, and the anti-episcopal urge was always associated with political revolution, like the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt or Sir John Oldcastle’s abortive revolt of 1417. Wood demonstrates that rebellions against ecclesiastical and political authorities are a kind of national tradition. He pays tribute to the archetypal awkward Englishman who may be censorious, but knows his rights and is “eager . . . to lead his own spiritual life – and to help others find theirs”.

However, the author is susceptible to the magic of the highly colored Catholic universe, writing of

…the shrine of St Wistan with its little painted statue of the royal prince and martyr, whose golden hair, it was said, waved each year at the end of May in the long grass of the water meadows below Kibworth.

He is highly critical of some of the consequences of Protestantism – “[N]o sooner is Purgatory fading away than a possessive individualism is making itself felt”. Many felt cut adrift from their past and even their family history:

One of the more profound effects . . . was in the long term to sever the relationship between the dead and the living. . . . [D]ead Protestants were now beyond the reach of prayer. [T]he Reformation thus radically revised not only the rituals but the process of salvation itself; as one might say, its conceptual geography.

Then there were some of the flawed exemplars of the Reformed religion, for whom “helping others find their own spiritual lives” meant forcing them. The 1650 Act against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and execrable opinions” also forbade such horrors as “Whitson-Ales, Wakes, Morris Dances, May-poles, Stage-plays . . . or such like Licentious practices.”

One Protestant Pecksniff was the Civil War-era Puritan vicar of Kibworth, John Yaxley, described as

…a great disturber of the peace, by day and night, searching for cavaliers and making great havoc and spoil of people’s goods.. . . [H]e constantly preached and prayed.

Even as Charles Il arrived triumphantly in London in 1660, Yaxley, still desirous of destruction after nearly 20 years of bloodletting, was hyperventilating:

Hell is broke loose, the devil and his instruments are coming to persecute the godly.

Anglicanism eventually squared the circle, but nonconformist currents persisted in Kibworth as elsewhere and informed the eventual emergence of the English Left, which famously in England “owes more to Methodism than Marxism”. There are conceptual and temperamental connections between Lollards, Puritans, Quakers, Wesleyans, temperance campaigners, suffragettes and politically correct politicians. Wood is part of that generic Left, evincing admiration for Engels and E.P. Thompson and their “great works”. The Independent’s reviewer Nick Groom applauded the author’s “democratic zeal”. But he is a liberal rather than an authoritarian leftist. He may be guilty of wishful thinking – but if so it is caused by a quiet kind of patriotism.

Ancient associations entrance him as well as us. An atmospheric photograph shows the site of the “Spear Tree”, the former Bronze Age burial mound on the Roman road north of Kibworth, which became the place where Anglo-Saxons would gather in wapentake (their assent to decisions signified by brandishing their spears) and continued to be the meeting place of local juries until the 1720s. Wood’s passion for connections leads him to draw parallels between past and present, sometimes slightly forced. For example, it seems anachronistic to aver that “the genetic makeup of the early Anglo-Saxons was especially mixed”, and “that the England of the early eleventh century was ‘a diverse, multi-ethnic society’”. He may be trying to rationalise the recent immigration that has made Leicester England’s most diverse city. In so doing, he overstates the dissimilarity of the Anglo-Saxons, contradicts his own testimony that the Viking component of the English population was small, and understates the unifying effects of the English language and Christianity. He also omits to mention that there was virtually no immigration into England between the eleventh century and the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The Independent‘s Groom homed in on this, recommending that Wood should revisit too-white Kibworth soon

…to see how imaginatively a traditional English identity, already rooted in Roman-British, Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, has accommodated the Asian and Caribbean communities.

That should be if rather than how. Can Leicester’s sundry soup of nationalities ever imagine themselves into the English narrative? It seems unlikely. The “mysterious crystallization” that Wood says gave everyone England appears to be undoing itself. His “givenness of the past” has been taken away. Today, England probably seems more real at Kibworth than in Leicester, or London.

Wood also claims that, during World War Il,

Kibworth people . . . saw a higher purpose than Churchill’s narrow rhetoric about empire; namely a community of interest with the people of Europe to counteract Germany’s ‘New Europe’

Did they really? Were they not fighting mostly because Hitler had given no choice, plus British imperialism mixed (contradictorily) with what many would now see as ‘intolerant’ nationalism.

These imperfections registered, we are left with a lyrical and learned appreciation of one of the world’s most fascinating countries, seen through the eyes of a very few of the ‘ordinary’ people who carried England’s accumulating weight onward against extraordinary odds. Whether they can continue to do so is yet to be seen, but at any rate Wood’s exercise in particularization is a success story.

The review first appeared in Chronicles in January 2012, and is reproduced with permission

Letter from Indo-Portugal – irreducible India

Underground-Buddha

LETTER FROM INDO-PORTUGAL – IRREDUCIBLE INDIA

When Vasco da Gama’s three battered little ships dropped anchor off Calicut on May 20, 1498, after a voyage of over ten months, they had finally found the sea route between Europe and India so long sought by Portugal’s kings and explorers. Apart from the desire for knowledge, Da Gama’s tatterdemalion miniarmada had come for two reasons – one mystical, one practical – summed up in the famous exchange between resident Moors (who had long been trading here) and Lusitanians: “What the Devil? What brought you hither?” “We came in search of Christians and spices.”

The Christians da Gama found were not the Prester John types the Portuguese had envisioned but Nestorians who had never even heard of the pope. Da Gama chose to overlook this awkward fact. He also long believed that the local Hindus were Christians, too, albeit with unorthodox practices and curiously multi-limbed idols.

The main reason for Da Gama’s, voyage was more prosaic. The Portuguese had long wanted to be able to obtain Indian spices without having to go through Arab and Venetian intermediaries. Not only did they want to save money, but they hoped to remove this highly profitable trade from the hands of Arab merchants and so weaken their erstwhile cruel occupier. (The Moors had been expelled from Portugal in 1253.)

Da Gama’s gifts to the zamorin, the Hindu ruler of Calicut – which included striped cloth, nuts, and honey – were hopelessly inadequate. This caused the zamorin to doubt Portugal’s importance and hearken to the intrigues of the Moorish merchants, who wanted their new rivals expelled. The situation was not helped by da Gama’s temperament. (Indignado is an adjective often used by Portuguese historians to describe him.)

Portugal’s machinations were assisted by other factors. They were not the only ones anxious to rein in Muslim military aggression and economic might. As well as fighting among themselves, Muslim armies were engaged in constant wars against their infidel neighbours while, as Cornell historian H. Morse Stephens noted in his 1897 biography Albuquerque:

The concentration of all commerce in the hands of the believers in the Prophet was not favourably regarded by the wisest of the Hindu rulers, who were therefore inclined to heartily welcome any competitors for their trade.

Almost as soon as da Gama had returned to Portugal with his report, King Dom Manuel started to organize a much larger expedition under Capt.-Maj. Pedro Alvares Cabral, and this set sail from Belém on March 9, 1500, with the blessing of the Pope, who had by now conferred upon the kings of Portugal the optimistic title of “Lord of Navigation, Conquests and Trade of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India”.

The expedition was blown off course in the Atlantic and eventually found itself off a strange shore, to which Cabral laid claim on behalf of Portugal and gave the name Vera Cruz (today’s Brazil). Tristan da Cunha, Angola, and Mozambique were other by-products of the Indian explorations, and Portugal’s Indian bases at Goa, Diu, Daman, Bassein, and Bombay would eventually be used as springboards to colonize Ceylon, the Malaccas, and Macao. Like other empires before and since, Portugal’s grew like Topsy.

More gales off the Cape of Good Hope sank four ships, with their complements, including Bartholomew Dias – who, appropriately, had originally named the cape Cabo Tormentoso, or “Cape of Storms”. Eventually, six ships arrived at Calicut. Cabral ingratiated himself with the new zamorin – the old one had died – with carefully chosen gifts and was granted permission to found a Portuguese trading post. But finding that the Moorish merchants were preventing the Portuguese from obtaining worthwhile cargo, he seized a Moorish vessel. In retribution, the Moors attacked the trading post, killing the factor and 53 of his men. A furious Cabral destroyed ten large Moorish ships in the harbour and then bombarded the city of Calicut for two days.

The rajah of Cochin, 100 miles southward, was hostile to Calicut and so welcomed the Portuguese navigators. Cochin became the site of the first permanent European settlement in India, with a major trading post, staffed by seven Portuguese. Today, it is still one of Asia’s busiest ports, with great ships passing up and down the strait between the fort and Vypeen Island, through the mats of water hyacinth, beyond the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that are one of the characteristic sights of what is now called Kochi.

Fishing net at Kochi

Fishing net at Kochi

Upon Cabral’s return to Lisbon in July 1501, he gave a highly partisan account of his travails, and the king accordingly developed a desire to “punish” Calicut. He prepared a powerful armada and chose da Gama as admiral. After various en route excesses, including the burning and sinking of a Moorish ship filled with unarmed pilgrims, da Cama bombarded Calicut and removed the ears and hands of some traders unlucky enough to be entering the port at the time (after which they were tied to the masts of their ships, which were set alight and pointed toward the shore). An armada sent by the zamorin was defeated easily, and da Gama returned to Lisbon in October 1503 with a hugely valuable cargo. (Da Gama was to make a third, final voyage to India in 1524, and he died on Christmas Eve that year at Cochin, where his stone may still be seen in St. Francis’s church – although his body was returned to Portugal in 1538.) It had become clear that the Portuguese would need to establish permanent military base on the Malabar Coast if they wanted to protect their mercantile interests. The place chosen by the leader of the 1510 expedition, Affonso de Albuquerque, a highly experienced soldier and sailor, was Goa.

Goa had been an important seaport since the third century B.C. and had been fought over by Hindus and Muslims since 1312. Eventually, it fell into the hands of the rajah of Bijapur, Yusuf Adil Shah, the lucky and talented son of a sultan of the Ottoman Turks. (Saved by his mother from being put to death upon the accession of Muhammad Il, he was educated secretly in Persia and rose from slave to army officer, governor, and king.) Under his rule, Goa became prosperous, but he taxed non-Muslims punitively, and his Turkish garrisons were notorious for their cruelty to nonbelievers. More mystically, an influential sadhu had prophesied that “a foreign people coming from a distant land” would conquer Goa. Augmenting this prophecy was the persistent appeal to the Indians of fairness of complexion, which gave the Portuguese automatic high-caste status (a preoccupation that is still very strong today).

Goa was ripe for regime change, and, when Albuquerque’s troops took the city on March 3, 1510, locals supposedly showered him with “flowers made of gold and silver”. But two months later, the Portuguese had to abandon Goa, as Adil Shah advanced to recapture the town. Because of the weather, they could not leave the harbour, so they remained at anchor in the mouth for almost three hungry and difficult months – during which time Adil Shah offered to provision the ships, saying that he wanted to beat the Portuguese in battle rather than by starvation, which offer Albuquerque spurned in a manner fully as indignado as da Gama, receiving the emissary on his flagship, to which the flotilla’s entire food supply had been brought as a bluff.

By November, Albuquerque was back, supported by 28 ships and both European and local troops. The ensuing battle gave rise to many anecdotes, such as Albuquerque’s comments to one of his lieutenants, who had carried on killing mounted enemies despite having an arrow sticking out of his face and blood all over his armour:

Sir Manoel de Lacerda, I declare to you that I am greatly envious of you, and so would Alexander the Great have been, had he been here, for you look more gallant for an evening’s rendezvous than the Emperor Aurelian.

Upon conquering the city for the second time, Albuquerque ordered that any Portuguese who had gone over to the Muslims should have their ears, noses, right hands, and the thumbs of their left hands removed and their hair plucked out. He also ordered the massacre of all the Muslim inhabitants, as the clemency he had extended after the first invasion had not been repaid with loyalty. Interfaith dialogue was never one of Albuquerque’s strong points. When first visiting Cochin, he had been shocked to find Jewish merchants in residence and had asked permission of the king to “exterminate them one by one”. (He did not succeed; there are still about twelve Jews living in Cochin, with a poignantly atmospheric 16th century synagogue, sole survivors of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world.) Yet he could be pragmatic and was adroit at exploiting divisions between foes. foes. With him as viceroy, Goa’s relations with its neighbours were marked by skill and ruthlessness. For example, Albuquerque suggested to one disaffected prince that he should facilitate his accession by means of poison. While on an expedition to the Persian Gulf, he ordered the immediate assassination of a hostile advisor to the king of Hormuz in front of that startled monarch, who subsequently became satisfactorily compliant.

He also fortified Goa and took steps to concentrate the whole trade of the coast in the harbor, to the extent that it soon became a hugely wealthy city, nicknamed “Golden Goa” and “Pearl of the Orient”. He founded a mint, reformed local government, and allowed native customs to continue as before, with the exception of suttee (not banned in British India until 1829). He also encouraged Portuguese of inferior rank to intermarry with the locals so as to bind the populations together. In his 1851 Goa and the Blue Mountains (a sparkling companion for long Indian train journeys), Sir Richard Burton blamed the eventual disappearance of Portuguese India squarely on this last policy – “a most treacherous and delusive political day dream”.

The Portuguese introduced the Goans to potatoes, peppers, and garlic. (The word vindaloo is from the Portuguese for “garlic wine”. ) Most notably, they began to build Southern European-style churches, convents, seminaries, gateways, forts, barracks, mercantile buildings, and houses, which today give parts of Goa and Cochin a distinctly Mediterranean architectural appearance, with wrought-iron balconies overlooking narrow streets, flaking pastel facades, bowing pantiled roofs, and verandas slowly collapsing under the combined onslaught of sun, rain, and insect. Goa’s massive churches, with their high, cool, empty interiors, could easily be in Lisbon or Oporto, except that the ornate baroque styling has been given an exuberant twist by local artisans, with local motifs and an occasional sinuousness of carving more reminiscent of Buddhist or Hindu sculpture than of Western  – for instance, Mary nursing the Holy Infant in the branches of a golden palm tree, a host of badly painted, brown-eyed angels erupting out of gilt ectoplasm on a reredos. Many of the religious carvings are very crude –

…of the most grotesque description . . . saints, whose very aspect makes one shudder and think of Frankenstein

thought Burton – yet they are executed with great verve.

After Albuquerque’s death in 1515, Goa gradually became an important religious centre, with St. Francis Xavier using it as a base for missionary work in the Far East. (His body is in the Basilica of Bom Jesus at Goa and is the object of a major decennial pilgrimage.) Later, it became a notorious stronghold of the Inquisition, with regular autos-da-fé; the imposing, if clumsily carved, table used by the Inquisitors is on display in the Goa State Museum.

Old Goa, and the estuary of the Mandovi

Old Goa, and the estuary of the Mandovi

Standing in front of the fungus-spotted Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, I had an achingly beautiful view down over the Mandovi River and the luxuriant jungle, with the white churches of Old Goa shining incongruously above the coconut palms as the sun was setting. In the foreground, a sea eagle flapped lazily in the superheated updrafts, while I cooled down after the climb and looked out over the remains of Indo-Portugal.

Apart from the confectionery-white upper stories of Se Cathedral, the churches of St. Cajetan and St. Francis and the shard-tower of St. Augustine’s, the only signs of human activity were a small ship heading out to sea in the far distance and occasional plumes of smoke, rising straight up in the heat-blued stillness. For about twenty minutes, I had a simulacrum of Golden Goa all to myself, as Albuquerque must have seen it – a safe, handsome harbour, a military stronghold, a fertile place where a gleaming city might be built and lived in and loved, a Camp of the Saints on the heathen shore. Here, where I stood, Adil Shah had placed his unavailing artillery in 1510. Now, his successors’ landmark chapel was itself sliding into graceful dissolution.

Goa started to go into decline after the Portuguese and Spanish crowns were united in 1580. Spain’s Dutch and British enemies now saw Portugal’s Indian territories as legitimate targets and started to expand commercial and military operations in South Asia. But more fundamental was the dysgenic depletion of Portugal, with thousands of the best and bravest products of the tiny kingdom being sent out year after year to perish in shipwrecks and battles or of disease, with the survivors encouraged to settle in India and marry Indian women. It was now the turn of the Dutch and English to exchange national health for imperial wealth. In 1661, Bombay was part of the marriage dowry of Catherine of Braganza, wherein lies yet another epic of ambition followed by hubris.

Goa’s few remaining grand Portuguese houses are very nearly not there at all. The floor of the blue ballroom of the famous Pereira-Braganza house undulates gently; a termite-infested piano is quietly collapsing in on itself in one corner; you can hear birds through holes in the silk-lined ceiling; and, in the rippling old glass of the white framed Flemish mirrors, the chairs given by a Portuguese monarch to a Braganza progenitor look like they are in some long-lost submarine kingdom.

The best things in Goa’s Architectural Museum are the outsize bronze statues of Portugal’s national poet Luiz de Camoes (his epic Lusiads were translated by Richard Burton) and Albuquerque, removed from public display in Panjim after Nehru finally sent his troops across the scarcely defended frontier in 1961, and a collection of paintings of Goan viceroys and governors.

The poor execution of many of these paintings (most were painted by Indian artists) is curiously appropriate, as it emphasises Goa’s isolation and unhealthiness, a province of a provincial empire. Many of the inhabitants of these alternately sickly, stern, and refined faces – the owners of ancient Estremaduran names, the lords of mountainside estates and old vines, wearing black cloaks and blue uniforms festooned with sashes and the crosses of the Order of Christ, the Order of St. James of the Sword, and the Military Order of St. Benedict of Aviz must have disliked being sent to India.

Portuguese arch at Goa

Portuguese arch at Goa

They would have been given the keys to the city at the Viceroy’s Arch, before passing in under the statue of da Gama into a hive of frenetic activity, where there are now just overgrown fields, crumbling walls, drifts of litter, and a few aristocratic, white churches on empty lawns. Many of these dignitaries now lie beneath the granite slabs decorated with their family crests in the broken nave of St. Augustine’s at the top of the hill, the stylised stone castles, wolves, eagles, trees, and mailed fists evoking the faraway homes they would never see again. How curious it must be to be a scion of one of these families, visiting from the old country, and see your family’s crest baking beneath the sun. Richard Burton again:

It is always a melancholy spectacle, the last resting-place of a fellow countryman in some remote nook of a foreign land, far from the dust of his forefathers . . . the wanderer’s heart yearns at the sight. How soon may not such fate be his own?

Such bittersweet reflections are impossible to avoid when among ruins, especially the ruins of an empire created by people a little like oneself.

On our last day, wilting after an early flight from Cochin, we took a slow, packed suburban train far out into Mumbai’s northern shanty suburbs. Alighting at the busy Vasai Road station, we found an obliging auto-rickshaw driver and lurched and hooted through squalor for twenty minutes in search of Bassein Fort.

Ceded by the sultan of Gujarat to the Portuguese in 1534, Bassein became the site of a powerful Portuguese fortification and, soon, the administrative centre, “Court of the North”, for all of Portuguese India. It was sacked in 1739, and its garrison extirpated. After bombardment by the British in 1780, it was never rebuilt. Now, mud-caked water buffalo loll in what were once refectories, spiders with six-inch leg-spans stretch their snares between palms in what were once the aisles of churches, and banyans force their twisting roots through the old masonry. Trees have sprouted, lived, and died on the top of what were once strong bastions and give a furry, indeterminate shape to once-imposing walls. Here and there on the dark walls, or hidden under surging ivy, one can still see European memorial slabs, carved window tracery, baroque curlicues, and scrollwork bordering gigantic archways leading into nothingness, crouching stone animals and Latin inscriptions above double doorways into roofless edifices.

This picturesque desolation makes for a fascinating contrast with the bustling and indescribably filthy fishing village nearby, with its daubed Madonnas, cobalt and jasmine walls, fly-encrusted Bombay duck drying in the sun, piles of fish guts lying on the ground, and young people rushing past on motorcycles, staring at our European faces as, probably, their ancestors stared at other European faces long ago. In India, it feels irresistible to draw parallels between the fate of Bassein and the possible fates of today’s “Courts of the North” – the European nations that have exhausted themselves in search of chimeræ and are now imploding. The Portuguese – and Dutch, French and British – came, saw, and conquered India, and now are being overwhelmed in turn. The old Occidental urge to explore, and imprint on others’ landscapes has moved very close to home. Goa, Bassein and a hundred other Indian places show us there is always more than one possible end to history.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 edition of Chronicles 

George Borrow revisited

GB

GEORGE BORROW REVISITED

George Borrow’s Second Tour of Wales in 1857
Edited by Ann M. Ridler, Wallingford, Oxon.: Lavengro Press, 2017, £15 paperback or as PDF from www.lavengropress.co.uk

George Borrow’s 1862 Wild Wales is a classic of a peculiar kind – the record of a bombastic, exhibitionist philologist’s 1854 cross-country peregrination to gratify a boundless curiosity about Welsh. The author of 1843’s hugely successful The Bible in Spain, which described his traipses across Spain during the Carlist Wars trying to wean Spaniards from Catholicism, was also trying to revive his writing career after the muted receptions given to his Gypsy books Lavengro and The Romany Rye.

He failed in this, although as with the Gypsy books later readers would prove highly receptive, grateful for Borrow’s powerful personality and entertained by his craggy humour, bathetic anecdotes, abrupt endings and self-aggrandisement. He also incidentally offers valuable vignettes of generally unrecorded and now largely vanished modes of life. We stride beside him (maybe under his large green umbrella) as he apostrophises the air, engages strangers in discourses about bards, monsters and psychic powers, execrates modernity, extols ale, provokes doctrinal disputes, makes ponderous jokes, brags about his linguistic skills, physical prowess and travels, or amazes all with (often mangled) attempts at Welsh – and when his odyssey comes to its end we feel bereft. But now the road-trip can resume, courtesy of specialists motivated solely by love of their subject, who have created something simultaneously augmentative and unique, a small but scintillating adornment to nineteenth century and Welsh studies.

In 1857, the man his old friend Theodore Watts-Dunton would later dub “prince of literary egotists” re-crossed Offa’s Dyke, his curiosity clearly unassuaged, as restlessly as any Romany to roam from Shrewsbury to St. David’s and back. The present volume is culled from Borrow’s notebooks, transcribed and annotated by the apparently indefatigable Ann Ridler. These have never been published in full before, although some observations were incorporated into Wild Wales and his Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings. It is a signal achievement to have consolidated them, considering that one notebook is held in Edinburgh and the other in New York, and both were written in pencil with whole sections almost illegible or obliterated. Much research was required to identify places mentioned but misspelled. Dr. Ridler suspects some locals deliberately misled Borrow, suspicious of this exotic and overly inquisitive outsider.

Unlike Wild Wales, literary references are almost absent, but he retains his energy and spirit of inquiry, his fascination with what is outmoded, his sturdiness and hatred of cant, including Dissenter cant. On Sabbaths, he keeps walking, more interested in river sources or druidic altars than rustic homilies. The text is frequently fragmentary, crazed and surreal as broken grave-slabs, but this does not impede understanding. If anything, it adds to the impression that this is a fugitive text about a fading culture, as fleetingly evocative as the “wind on the heath” eulogised by Lavengro’s Jasper Petulengro. Some extracts read like modern poetry –

…the dark miller

The kind offer — the

hill surmounted — the

dim vista

– while his sketches are amusingly abstract (“rarely enlightening”, Dr. Ridler opines kindly).

Notwithstanding all lacunae, and Borrow’s oddly limited landscape vocabulary, we are transported to his part pre-modern road, the “dusky russet moors”, “wild lanes” and “toilsome ascents”. We swat away the same flies, likewise endure “insufferable heat”, rain, torn clothes, sore feet, stomach pains, bad beer, loneliness and brusquerie, like that of the cowherd he asked for water who was “not civil till I had given her a penny”. Snatched from utter oblivion are the Shrewsbury nailmaker who had never crossed the border even though “he believed that Wales was a better place for nailmakers” – “the Bar girl with the Flemish face” – the chimney sweep “blind of one eye – long hair leather sleeves scarcely the look of a human being but very intelligent” – soldiers who’d stood at Waterloo – “railroad ruffians” – the black American butler in company with “English vagabonds” – farmers who spoke of enormous pike – reapers who knew Welsh but conversed in English – “handsome girls in singular dress milking cows in the street” – the mother at the river bank, with children “who were frightened but at last smiled”.

We share Borrow’s amusement at “the talking gentleman who proposed his own health” in Builth. We realise the Essex-born salesman who fulminated that the Welsh were “all liars and there was no getting money from them” was extrapolating ethnically from one bad client, and may have been further embittered by toothache he had “caught at Aberystwyth”. We will never know what had so incensed the Montgomery man that he “hoped the entire Sepoy force would be exterminated” (the Indian Mutiny was ongoing), but it is salutary to be reminded of the array of Welsh opinion, and Wales’s involvement in wider stories. With its myriad small meetings that evoke an age, and gritty texture, this is a brilliantly suggestive curio of a complex country as seen by an engaging and incomparable observer.

This article first appeared in the New Welsh Review in October 2017

Letters from antediluvian Europe

Romanian graveyard, 1930s - painting by Gheorge Opriz

Romanian graveyard, 1930s – painting by Gheorge Opriz

LETTERS FROM ANTEDILUVIAN EUROPE

In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Edited by Charlotte Mosley, London: John Murray, 2009, 416pp.

In times of texting and sexting, Twittering and wittering, there is something antediluvian about epistolary collections – a whiff of fountain pens and headed notepaper, morocco-topped escritoires in long-windowed drawing rooms looking out over lawns studded with cedars and peacocks. Such evocations are lent depth and body when the letters in question have passed between lifelong friends Deborah Devonshire [89, when this book was published – she died in 2015], last of the Mitford girls and chatelaine of Chatsworth, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor [94, when this book was published – he died in 2011], war hero and gentleman-chronicler of an interwar, largely vanished, traditional Europe with which he lived on unusually intimate terms.

Leigh Fermor’s dangerously unsettling account of his peregrinations between 1933 and 1939 (in A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water (1) evokes a Europe that was even then anachronistic and which has since been almost entirely swept away by war and communism, or gnawed by the worms of globalism. Portents were present to this observant walker (at least in retrospect – Gifts was published in 1977 and Woods and the Water in 1986) as he tramped solitarily from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, an 18-year-old romantic, amateur historian, folklorist, and philologist, carrying in his rucksack a few letters of introduction, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and Horace’s Odes. He noted flambeaux-toting SA processions in Germany, and everywhere encroaching suburbanisation and industrialisation, improving transport and communications, fading folk memories, shrinking estates, shrivelling patrimonies, crumbling chateaux – rumours everywhere of rationalisation and reordering, dissent and diminution.

But there was just time for him to sample Europe almost as if he had been a medieval traveler, in all its centuries-accreted colour, ruins and runes, relicts and survivals, folk tales and prejudices, arcane wisdom and archaic dialects, intricately quartered coats of arms, unbuilt horizons, unmechanised agriculture, moonlit highways, hostels and Schlösser, white cathedrals and forlorn wayside shrines, churls and countesses, leprosy and libraries, wolves in the hills and giant catfish swarming in dark Danubian depths.

His evocation of an eclipsed Europe in those sometimes showy but piquant books long ago made him a literary figurehead for nostalgists and would-be Wandervögelen. Subsequent adventures have only augmented his status. Max Hastings observed in 2004 that Leigh Fermor was a man who “consciously sought Byonic experience”. This may be why, in 1935, he rode with royalist cavalry putting a republican uprising in Macedonia, and in 1944 abducted a German general and smuggled him across Crete while pursued by whole Wehrmacht divisions (which latter exploit formed the basis of the 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor). He spent months in French monasteries searching for spiritual enlightenment (recorded in A Time To Keep Silence, climbed and delved in South America (Three Letters From the Andes), tried earnestly to understand the piled-up nonsense of voodoo (The Traveller’s Tree), and mote a lurid novel about an island’s extirpation (The Violins of Saint-Jacques). Philhellene non-pareil (more “Byronic experience”), he went on to write acclaimed books on Greece (Mani in 1958, and Roumeli in 1966) and build a house for himself and his wife, Joan (she died in 2003), on the Peloponnese at the southernmost tip of mainland Europe.

Mani contains the perfect Leigh Fermor passage, the ouzo-fuelled “Byzantium Restored”, a pattern-book reverie, but one rooted in reality, lush and learned, suffused longing and full of the poetry of proper nouns, and a passage that incidentally might now be dismissed by many as “Islamophobia”. (Elsewhere, Leigh Fermor explicitly bemoans the Turkish presence in Europe. He has escaped this censure, although he has had a few pursed-lip critics, such as the Times Literary Supplement’s Mary Beard, who, in 2005, criticised his “laddish tales”, “blokeish tone”, “intricate and outdated disquisitions”, and disdain for mass tourism.

His In Tearing Haste interlocutor is equally beguiling. It is not just that Deborah Devonshire is a duchess, with all that dust-mote-filled word connotes, inhabiting a Wodehousian ambience of great houses and garden parties, Labradors and Purdeys, Old Masters and Gloucester Old Spots, but also because she, the last of six gilded sisters and one brother who alternately graced and scandalised British gossip columns from the 1920s onward, possesses all the Mitford directness and panache.

She is very different from, but also strangely like, her siblings Nancy  1904-73), socialist, biographer, and author of Love in a Cold Climate; Pamela  1907-94), the quietest, called “the rural Mitford” by her admirer John Betjeman; Thomas (1909-45), a fascist sympathizer who refused to fight Germany but died in action against the Japanese; Diana (1910-2003), who married Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity (1914-48), a Hitlerite who tried to commit suicide upon the outbreak of war, and Jessica (1917-96), a communist who eloped to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and later became involved with the U.S. civil rights movement, and refused to speak to Diana in later life. By contrast, Deborah’s only foray into politics was as a supporter of the bland Social Democratic Party in the 1980s. She certainly did not share Unity’s adoration of Hitler, whom they both met in 1937; she informed an amused Daily Telegraph journalist in 2007 that she would much rather have chatted with her musical idol, Elvis Presley.

Deborah, fundamentally practical and outdoorsy, might have been content to have been a second “rural Mitford”, but her marriage to one of Britain’s leading aristocrats – Andrew, the 11th duke of Devonshire, who died in 2004 – has ensured that she has been a participant in many of the great public events and private dinners of the period covered by these letters (1954-2007). She has also been instrumental in saving Chatsworth, one of England’s most remarkable houses, from financial difficulties through tireless writing and merchandising, even operating a cash register in the estate’s gift shop.

Her and Leigh Fermor’s remembrances of some of the places, personalities, and events of those decades, which saw Britain turn from imperial power to E.U. province, Fairest Isle to Cool Britannia, workshop of the world to hedge-fund haven, and Anglo- Celtic to multiracial are fascinating because their authors know (or knew) ‘everyone’ and understand the way Britain operates, or used to operate. Although essentially apolitical and sometimes even seemingly slight, these exchanges lend proportion, depth, and texture to the frequently told, but often superficial, saga of prolonged decline management.

“Debo’s” letters to “Paddy”, which are generally shorter than his to her, are a-brim with astute, arch observations on royals, prime ministers (Harold Macmillan was a relative by marriage), presidents (she sat beside J.F.K. during his inauguration , artists, writers, musicians, sculptors, academics, and designers – as well as a bucolic cast of hunters, farmers, pig breeders, butchers, and gardeners, even horses and chickens. She writes economically but to great effect. As Leigh Fermor noted in the Daily Telegraph in 2000, “She writes with ease and speed, and wonders what all the fuss is about” – her facility, a source of wonderment to a notoriously painstaking writer, luring him often into capering verse and cartoons, revealing an unexpected impishness.

Her comments are often amusing. Jackie Kennedy seems to her “a queer fish. Her face is one of the oddest I ever saw. It is put together in a very wild way”. About the “Troubles” in Ireland, she writes “I do love the Irish, but I wish they’d stop shooting people’s knees. It’s such a horrid trick”. She recalls a very elderly friend who spends her dotage “doing the three Rs – Reading and Remembering Rogering”. Sometimes she makes penetrating points in an understated way, summing up trends and types in devastating phrases, such as when she notes of the Queen Mother’s funeral:

What a poke in the eye for the MEDIA that all those people queued night and day in the freezing wind to see the lying in state . . . we had a wonderful view of everything. Bang opposite that wretched little Prime Minster & the frightful Cherie. Prescott looks like a bareknuckle fighter of Sackville Glove fame from the East End.

At other times, and increasingly as “the FOULNESS of old age” strikes family and friends, the letters become “unbearable memories of the olden days”. For example, on the death of Diana Mosley – for many, a monster, but for Deborah, a beloved sister – she remarks,

It is so odd to have lost someone who was always there. The childhood cry of the seventh, straggling to keep up on stubby legs, of WAIT FOR ME, lives with me. She couldn’t.

Leigh Fermor is more obviously political. In between typically dazzling descriptions of his latest exploits, he winces at the tedious “booming” of Simone Weil and occasionally comes out with things like

The present government obviously plans to quietly strangle English history in all its aspects.

These letters, perfectly edited and annotated by Diana Mosley’s daughter-in-law, and including a necessary glossary of nicknames, are not a history nor even a diary, but an enlightening account of how two twitchingly alert, highly cultured people reacted and related to a maelstrom of eccentric and brilliant relatives and friends and, beyond them, to revolutionary social upheaval. They are a window into a vanishing ambience what Richard Davenport-Hines called “a lost world of glamour, intelligence and personal scruples”. The world the two remember and regret was a small but significant planet, with a shared style, filled with in laws and in-jokes, common experiences and tastes, lightly sitting authority and noblesse oblige; its revolving cast of strong personalities viewed against a taken-for-granted cultural backdrop that gave a context to the players and grounded them in a time and place. Even “non-U” interlopers tried to be “U”, ditching serviette in favour of napkin and replacing toilet with loo, while a certain grocer’s daughter from Grantham thought it necessary to exchange her flat Midlands tones for a strangulated variant of Received Pronunciation. (These days, R.P. may sometimes be an actual drawback in some careers.)

The star recalled to life in this collection has gone supernova and is exploding indefinitely outward, its cool architecture of class and control dymamited by death duties, inheritance taxes and democracy. Its constantly changing, but curiously consistent, leadership cadre has now been almost entirely superseded by a new aristocracy of career politicians, celebrities, and oligarchs – a group that is looser, less rooted, less substantial, and as gauche ideologically as it is socially. There are still generals, masters of foxhounds, clubmen, aesthetes, and Old Etonians – David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne are all O.E.s – but they are no longer the default power in the land and have little context or corporate personality. The kind of houses lived in by Deborah and aspired to by Leigh Fermor are mostly now beautiful shells, roped-off walkways along which tourists troop respectfully but bemusedly. Meanwhile, the Elizabeth Frinks have metamorphosed into Damien Hirsts, the Maurice Bowras into Terry Eagletons, the John Betjemans into Benjamin Zephaniahs, and the Benjamin Brittens into Britney Spearses.

“Dr Oblivion comes to see me a bit too often”, Deborah repines in 2004, speaking of the fell practitioner laying waste to her contemporaries. This is not to say that there are not many cultured and elegant people left in England; there are including Deborah’s children and grandchildren , but they are outnumbered, outgunned, and increasingly irrelevant. Sir Patrick once recalled how, during his youthful journey across Europe, he might sleep one night in a hayrick and the next in a chateau:

I suddenly found myself in some tremendous castle with banners flying and horses galore.

Modern European adventurers are more likely to bed down in chain hotels with mints on the pillow, the banners and horses available only on DVD.

But despite what has happened to the Old Continent, the knight and the duchess at least have discharged their duties, bequeathing us noble literature and a great estate still defying debasement. They have also left in these letters a memento of a modus vivendi that in some ways is still with us, but which in most ways that matter has vanished as utterly as the England of Emma.

This review was published in the October 2009 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

NOTE

1. A third installment of what was always envisaged as a trilogy was published posthumously as The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates to Mount Athos in 2014 (edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper). My review can be found here

Outré Europe – review of Basile’s Tale of Tales

Basile pic

OUTRÉ EUROPE

The Tale of Tales, Giambattista Basile, trans. Nancy L. Canepa, London: Penguin Classics, 2016, pb., $20

Like most Western children, I was reared partly on fairy-tales. Presented in beautifully illustrated Ladybird books, these were as much a part of my early childhood as the house decor, encouraging me to read, and arousing inchoate ideas of an ur-Europe of forlorn beauties, wandering princes, vindictive stepmothers, dangerous fruits, fabulous treasures, ravening beasts, warty witches, magnificent chateaux, and thorn-swathed castles lost in trackless forest. When I encountered the Disney versions I swiftly lost interest in them, boyishly repelled by song-and-dance numbers and tweeness – but still the stories stayed, lodged in my image of myself and the civilisation to which I felt I belonged. It was years before I realised that fairy-tales were much darker and more interesting than Disney or Hans Christian Andersen had led me to believe – and years more before I heard of Giambattista Basile, the most inventive of all fairy-tale writers, and to whom we owe such kindergarten classics as Rapunzel and Cinderella. This beautifully translated, superbly annotated new translation of his Tale of Tales which Benedetto Croce called “the most remarkable book of the Baroque period” – should therefore be of abounding interest to anyone who has any proprietorial regard for European culture.

Establishing the origins of traditionary tales is often impossible, stemming as many do from before written history, and the commonalities of the human condition leading to adventitious parallels even in widely separated cultures. For example, the ninth-century Chinese folk tale of Yeh-hsien is reminiscent of Cinderella – a girl ill-treated by step-relations but aided by a giant fish to attend a great ball attired in kingfisher-feather dress and gold shoes, one of which she mislays, and which is too delicate to fit anyone else until at last the lovelorn royal suitor finds her in a scullery. Tales have also interpenetrated each other to some extent through borrowings and translations. The Arabian Nights, for example, has partly Indian origins, compiled by Ashokan folklorist-intellectuals in the 3rd century B.C. as the Panchatantra, from stories that were old even then (they would not be translated into Arabic until the 8th century). The cities of the Mediterranean littorals have always been interfaces as well as flashpoints, and one of the oldest and greatest was Naples, where Giambattista Basile first bawled lustily for attention circa 1575, newest addition to a socially ambitious middle-class Posillipo clan.

The youthful Giambattista was reared in a rich-historied, Vesuvius-conscious, lushly-grown, staggeringly vital city of around 200,000 souls, caught between unquietly sleeping pagan past and splendid Catholicism, Commedia dell’arte and Counter-Reformation, Harlequin and the Holy Ghost. In summer, he probably swam, as one day I swam, in the swelling Bay beneath the ruins of a Roman summer-house – perhaps that of ogre-like Vedius Pollio, a 1st century B.C. equestrian who fed slaves to lampreys – and doubtless attended High Mass at the Cathedral of San Gennaro where thrice yearly throngs come to see the magical liquefaction of the city saint’s ichor. Etruscan, Greek, Western Empire, Byzantine, Ostrogoth, Lombard, Saracen, Norman, Hohenstaufen, Angevin, Spanish and Near Eastern influences vied in everyone’s ether, while overlapping visionaries like Giordano Bruno, Bernardino Telesio, Caravaggio, and St. Joseph of Cupertino augmented the sensory-intellectual banquet.

Naples’ part-Spanish nobility proving slow to patronise the young Basile, like other ambitious Campanians he decamped northwards, eventually becoming a mercenary guarding Venice’s Cretan outpost of Candia (Heraklion). Here he joined a dilettantish society, Accademia degli Stravaganti (“Academy of Oddities”), and started to write letters, verses, songs and anagrams. By 1608, he was back home, where his sister Adriana had won European fame as a singer, fêted as la sirena di Posillipo. Helped by her connections, he began to garner a literary reputation, as well as that of a skilled administrator, becoming secretary to noble families as far afield as Mantua and later a several-times city governor within the Kingdom of Naples. Although he styled himself Il Pigro (“The Lazy One”), in what must have been limited spare time he turned out poetry and plays, and scholarly editions of mannerist classics in Italian – while also authoring, gathering and restyling the mass of dialect material that would transmute into The Tale of Tales. Circa 1624, he was ennobled as Count of Torone, and continued what an obituarist called his “very peaceful tenor of life” until falling to flu in 1632.

It is ironic that Basile’s scholarly works have fallen into obscurity, and that he should be remembered today almost solely for Lo Cunto de la Cunti (also called Pentamerone, because it consists of fifty tales told within a five day period, and as hommage to Boccaccio’s Decameron), which was not even published until four years after his death. Why he did not have it published is unclear. It was not a question of a sophisticate embarrassed by provincial roots, because he always championed Neapolitan artists and writers. It might have been difficult to find a publisher, translator Nancy N. Canepa suggests,

…in a period in which Spain was striving to consolidate its colonialist regime in southern Italy, a literature whose depiction of local realities was often tinged with anti-Spanish and anti-colonial sentiment was regarded suspiciously by official culture.

Maybe he just did not feel it was ready for publication. But in any case these stories were always supposed to be told rather than read – and told within a limited circle. The collection is subtitled “Entertainment for Little Ones”, but the intended audience was decidedly adult – aesthetes, intellectuals and wits, who would appreciate Basile’s ornate language, lavish metaphors, his torrent of classical and contemporary allusions, sly squibs, urbanity, and lugubrious eclogues on courtly life or moral virtue. Then there is surrealism – such as in The Crow, when a king become besotted by a freshly-killed crow whose blood has leaked onto white marble, and searches ever after for a wife with such colouration of hair, lips and skin. In short, the stories are characterised by what Cambridge don E. R. Vincent called “euphuistic sophistication.”

Older children would, however, probably have been shocked-delighted by Basile’s gleeful descriptions of sex, his paragraphs of profanities, and comical conceits such as elderly and deformed story-tellers beguiling the periods between narrations playing chasing games and hide-and-seek. Then of course there are magical transformations, gore and grotesquerie by the cartload – to the extent that it is sometimes a relief to take refuge in Canepa’s pellucid footnotes.

The Tale of Tales went through several partial or complete Neapolitan editions between 1634 and the early eighteenth century, then passed into Bolognese dialect and at last Italian. In 1846, it made it into German and, in 1848, English (translated by John Edward Taylor, and illustrated by Cruikshank). In 1893, came the best-known Englishing to date, by that bourgeoisie-scourging romancer Sir Richard Burton, whose version, said biographer Fawn Brodie, showed that “…he had forgotten nothing of the gutter argot he had learned in Naples as a youth.” It is fascinating to compare his version with Canepa’s – both full of brilliance and vim, but hers has the edge, perhaps because he was a generalist, whereas she has specialised. In this passage from “The Dove”, he describes an ogress,

…the brow was cut out of Genoa stone fit to sharpen the knife of fear, which sickened all breasts; the eyes were comets, which caused by a glance a trembling of the limbs, and tightening of the heart, and ice upon the spirits, sharpening of arms, and looseness of body; and she brought terror in her face, fear in her eyes, trembling in her steps, and threats in her words. Her mouth had tusks like a wild boar’s, and was large as a dog-fish’s…

While excellent, this seems inferior to Canepa’s:

…her forehead was made of Genoese stone, to whet the knife of fear that rips open chests; her eyes were comets that predicted shaky legs, wormy hearts, frozen spirits, diarrhoea of the soul, and evacuation of the intestines, for she wore terror on her face, fear in her gaze, thunder in her footsteps, and dysentery in her words. Her mouth was tusked like a pig’s and as big as a scorpion fish’s.

Last year, some of this highly-seasoned stufato finally made it to the screen, in Matteo Garrone’s Italo-French Il Racconto dei Racconti, starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones – the latter especially well cast as the king who becomes besotted with a flea and feeds it secretly on his own blood and raw meat until it reaches lamb-size, then kills it and offers his daughter in marriage to anyone who can tell him what kind of animal it was. Naturally, an ogre wins the contest, and the stage is set for yet more fantastical bloodiness.

Illustrator Carmelo Lettere, whose freewheeling cartoons well suit this matter, notes how

In Basile’s text an uncontainable, unseemly, and impure world unfolds itself in elegant and anticlassical fashion.

Canepa similarly stresses a post-modern interpretation of the stories, in which 17th century hierarchies are upturned and found wanting – although this is presumably just to make the collection seem more palatable to today’s readers, rather than to make some oblique sociopolitical comment relevant to today. She highlights discrepancies between the conventional happy endings of many of the stories and their actual content. For example, at the close of The Cinderella Cat, Basile avers complacently “Those who oppose the stars are crazy” –  even though his heroine succeeds by doing just that, even committing murder (one cannot imagine the Grimms’ girl doing that, let alone Disney’s). But any unfolding or upturning only seems to go so far. It seems after all unlikely that the peaceful-tenored fabulist would have wished to unsettle the system into which he had been admitted.

Basile was vastly original, obviously, but his urbane auditors would have recognised all kinds of antecedents. Beneath all the phantasmagorical, sometimes disgusting detail – guitar-playing crickets, the decapitated being reanimated, a wizened dyer who bleaches and pins her skin to fool a king into sex, geese being used as toilet paper, cockroach suppositories – lie deep, millennia-old structures, like palaces swallowed by forest but visible from the air. These tales are crammed with traditional tropes, some of the 2,500 enumerated so laboriously (and, one suspects, slightly joylessly) by folklorists Aarne and Thompson.

The book starts with one, “The Supplanted Bride” – the unsmiling princess Zoza forced into laughter by witnessing an argument between an old woman and a boy, ending up with the enraged crone (after a gratuitous flash of her “woodsy scene”!) cursing Zoza for laughing. This curse inevitably involves the princess being cheated out of her prince by an ugly and foolish slave, who marries him instead. But kindly (and apparently inegalitarian) fairies, equally inevitably aid Zoza, and social equilibrium is regained, after a salutary (but un-serious) tossing and goring. These stories are more psychological safety-valves than moral lessons or political messages. As Iona and Peter Opie observe in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974),

In the most-loved fairy tales, it will be noticed, noble personages may be brought low by fairy enchantment or by human beastliness, but the lowly are seldom made noble. The established order is not stood on its head.

Classical and medieval literature are, as Canepa notes, full of fates being circumvented, gods being outwitted, monarchs being lampooned or traduced, heroes who can be monsters, time-slips and bizarre metamorphoses. As these ideas endlessly return, so too do character-types, imagery and styles. Basile’s “unexpectedly modern” heroines are not actually more empowered than, say, Clytemnestra or Salome. Basile’s contemporary-feeling grossness was prefigured in Rabelais, his surrealism in Aristophanes, or works by Bosch and Arcimboldo. The author’s “stylistic hybridity” is a reflection, simply, of unconfinable genius, rather than a model for literature (or society) then or today.

Basile was gleaning in ancient fields, but he added piquant persona to all the things he found, making them his own – but also oddly ours, aspects of an outré Europe that subsists below and still feeds into modernity. Those who wish to know more about Naples, Italy, the 17th century, the baroque sensibility, and the wildest shores of Europe’s identity ought to avail of the rare opportunity to read this foundational, fantastical farrago.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission