Europe, from Cretaceous to Anthropocene

Europe: A Natural History

Tim Flannery, London: Allen Lane, 2018, 346 pages, £20

Seen from space, much of nighttime Europe blazes with light, evidence of industry, urbanism, and an existential restlessness that has long impelled Europeans to impose modernity on themselves and the world. Australian palaeontologist-ecologist Tim Flannery, amongst much else author of The Future Eaters and The Weather Makers, and discoverer of 29 species of kangaroo, explores what underlies the old continent’s insomnia, and the darker places between our electric islands.

He drills down through nameless, numberless layers, to expose a chthonic continent – when tectonics turned, seas dried and refilled, and centillions of alien life-forms moved urgently across an indifferent Earth ‘without form, and void’, where ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep’. The world’s first coral reefs may have formed here, the first moles sifted soil, and hills were made by snails, while the earliest hominids came out of Europe before humans came out of Africa. He expertly conjures up successive exotic ur-Europes out of rare petrifactions and the cultures of the human centuries.

We ‘visit’ Bal, Hateg, Modac and Tethys, the obscurely resonant names given to the primordial archipelago by theorists of Deep Time. We visualise giraffe-sized, leathery-winged Hatzegopteryx pterosaurs stalking out from Cretaceous cypresses to batten on blood, like Nosferatu – or the Langelian flood, when Atlantic waters cascaded four kilometres to fill the parched plain of the Mediterranean at a stupendous ten metres per day, like a vision from Paradise Lost. We reach down through rock to where we began, our faintly comprehensible antecessors who walked across a Suffolk storm beach 800 millennia ago – or, a mere 40,000 years since, ate each other in future Spain, carved the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Venus of Hohle Fels, and speared or made obeisance to Transylvanian cave bears. A child and a dog explored France’s Chauvet Cave 26,000 years ago –  the first unequivocal companionship of humans and canines – the adventurer smudging charcoal as they passed palaeolithic paintings to the already abandoned Room of Skulls. Great auks stood guard on Sicilian shores – cave lions’ roars split the Cantabrian night – mammoths, aurochs, giant elk and wisent made the north continent from Mayo to Masuria shake with their weight.

Europeans were becoming ‘the mind over their land’, and wilderness was everywhere under attack. Big and small animals fled into the margins, but even as they went left spoor in the new apex predator’s myriad mythologies. The dreamtime tale of Europa abducted by Jupiter in bull guise, or the Bronze Age bull-leapers of Knossos, borrow from ideas of aurochs (which, royally protected, persisted in Poland until 1627). Polyphemus the cyclops may have been inspired by a fabulist finding an elephant skull. Androcles’ lion was terrifying, yet noble – the leopards on Armenian drinking vessels lethal, but lovely. Even the loathed wolf – Charlemagne founded La Louveterie in 813 to wipe them out, which it essayed with efficiency until 1971 – suckled Romulus and Remus, and padded into heraldry and vexillography. Secretive salamanders became basilisks, porcupines introduced by Moors grunted into the armorial bearings of Capetian kings, and alchemists kept toads (Europe’s oldest vertebrates) as lunar familiars. The Miocene bestiary might almost be medieval, and science could reinforce romance; seventeenth century clergyman Robert Plot identified a dinosaur fossil as a femur, but believed it had belonged to a giant from Albion-founding myth.

Palaeontologists were as colourful as their subjects, and good stewardship was seen in strange places. Sir Richard Owen pickled Gideon Mantell’s spine, but he also identified the largest venomous snake of all time (Laophis crotaloides – an allusion to Laocoön). Franz Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás loved a shepherd, aspired to Albania’s throne – and pioneered Cretaceous classifications. Romania’s bears owe their lives to Ceaușescu. The Nazi-supporting Hecks saved Przewalski’s Horse. German soldiers digging an air-raid shelter in Athens found and preserved the first fossils of Graecopithecus. One could cavil about typos, or the hoary canard that medieval scholars were flat-earthers – but any reservations are outweighed by bold and brilliant evocation of Europes forever vanished yet paradoxically present as engrams beneath our streets, in every landscape feature and wind soughing across ‘empty’ spaces.

Flannery looks far forwards as well as back, to see how pre-prehistory might inform tomorrow – advocating updating taxonomy and laws on endangered species, restoring biomass, and sensitive rewilding. Wolves are already loping unassisted into Denmark, Flanders and Paris, and golden jackals have got to the Netherlands, as attitudes alter, and millions of hectares of farmland fall into disuse. Horace observed, ‘You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, yet she will hurry back’. Holland’s Oostvaardersplassen, England’s Knepp and a growing number of other places tantalise with tomorrow’s safaris, adventures to be had in a newly envisioned Europe, as new and returning species reconstitute a continent, and lay down the fossils of the future.

This review first appeared in the Irish Times of 18th October 2018, and is reproduced with permission

The bounding, boundless main

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

David Abulafia, Allen Lane, 2019, 1,050 pages, £35

David Abulafia’s 2011 The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean set a standard in Middle Sea scholarship, charting a course from 22,000 BC to today, combining careful detail with epic sweep. This dazzlingly ambitious companion-piece looks far beyond the Strait and Suez, towards seaways older than those of Odysseus but less often explored.

Classical cosmographers dreamed of Okeanos, an all-encompassing, intermingling great water which both islanded and united humanity, an azure immensity played across by wanderlust and winds. Deities disported there with dolphins, adventurers hazarded lives against leviathans, and invaders crossed routes with traders. Even Homer’s storied sea was but a bay of the world’s water – a conception that harmonises with today’s ecology of oceanic interconnectedness.

The thalassographer’s imagination must be equally untrammelled, reconstructing ports and practices from single coins or cuneiforms, out-of-place amphorae, or tersely tantalising texts. Abulafia never lets enthusiasm overpower him, knowing that goods often came hand-to-hand overland rather than by sea, and similarities between separated cultures may be ‘processual’ (arising independently out of circumstances) rather than the results of diffusion. But often the evidence astounds – like the coins of Augustus still in currency in twentieth century Colombo.

In The Discovery of Mankind (2008), the author chronicled medieval Atlantic encounters with hitherto unguessed-at non-Europeans. The Boundless Sea similarly stresses contacts over ‘discoveries’, and relativizes aggrandizing European narratives, from Strabo via Camões and Hakluyt to Cook. The author is more interested in merchants than captains, believes insufficient attention has been paid to non-Western navigations, and urges us not to overlook slaves, or women (such contingencies seem unlikely). To the author, people are generally outward-looking, predisposed to travel, and against restrictive practices; he supports Brexit as a liberal enterprise.

Readers might reasonably anticipate dull determinism, or boundless angst, but these shallows are avoided by shrewd sensitivity, and the sheer majesty of his subject. He sees inevitable – and desirable – cross-fertilisation where others see only one-way exploitation. Denunciations of European actions during the ‘Age of Discovery’ (really an Age of Revelation) are tempered by awareness that anyone can behave appallingly. Africans and Arabs were agents for Western slavers, and criticisms of New World Catholicism are viewed against Aztec human sacrifice. In 1567, a friendly Tuvualan offered Spanish captain Álvaro de Mendaña the shoulder and arm of a child to eat (the hand was still attached). Mendaña’s horror is counterpointed by a gentle hint that Inquisitorial immolations were equally unpalatable.

Unlike frigid Fernand Braudel, Abulafia ascribes world-shaping importance to religion. It was not just European geopolitics, or Castilian cupidity, but personal idealism that impelled Columbus to weigh anchor that August morning:

It was the Lord who put into my mind (I could feel His hand upon me) the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies.

Religions travelled along with goods, invisible cargoes bringing mixed blessings to previously ‘ignorant’ islands. St Elmo’s Fire crackled auspiciously around mastheads, proof of various deities’ approval. Romans brought their household gods when seeking islands whose sands were literally silver – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Taoists swapped blows and scriptures – Christians searched for sacred sites, or souls to be ‘saved’ from themselves. Enslavement, to some Churchmen, was better for the enslaved than never knowing about Christ. Others opposed slavery, and yet others waxed sentimental; Thomas More’s Utopia was coloured by naïve accounts of new-found Edenic ‘innocents’.

The Pacific is Abulafia’s ‘Oldest Ocean’ because Lapitans were traversing vast distances between scattered atolls when others preferred inshore shallows. Lapitans (we think inevitably of Swift’s Laputa) and their Polynesian successors performed brilliant computations without compasses, through knowledge of water colour, phosphorescence, clouds, smells, birds, fish, floating debris, angles of sun and moon, positions of the stars – their ancestors, they believed, watching over their tiny boats, which stayed still while the world wheeled. Captain Cook’s ally Tupaia tried to reconcile Polynesian and European navigational notions, but ultimately he knew where islands were ‘because they had always been there’. Tupaia hadn’t heard of New Zealand or Hawai’i, yet these had already been settled, although thousands of miles from other islands and, in the case of Hawai’i, under different stars.

Sumerian sea links to the Indus Valley essentially inaugurated global trade, but even to them the Indian Ocean remained elementally alien – ‘abyss’ derives from the Sumerian abzu. Even frequent ports of call were simultaneously markets and magical realms. When Egyptians essayed the ‘Great Green’ in quest of the fabulous ‘Land of Punt’, they expected to meet spirits on the way. The author brims with information on Asia’s aquatic achievements – Mongol naval might, the ‘empire’ of Śri Vijaya, how Shintō prohibitions delayed Japan’s development, and why Ming emperors stopped funding Zheng He’s armadas, which might else have turned the Indian Ocean Chinese.

Atlantic histories often scant the pre-1492 period, but The Boundless Sea offers depth, zooming from ninth century steering to mirage-humped horizons. Even icebound ‘Ultima Thule’ thawed into the world economy – Iceland offered sulphur and walrus ivory, Greenland falcons went to Sicily, a headdress from a Norse Greenlander’s grave copied 15th century Burgundian fashion, Basque boats brought Newfoundland herrings, the Russians sent ermines for crowns, obsessives hunted the ‘North-West Passage’ to Cathay. The Hanseatic League famously stitched together the Atlantic littorals, but fewer remember the Vitalienbrüder pirates who preyed on their iconic cogs. The English and Dutch East India Companies are still talked of – but there was also a Danish one, and a Swedish. Hugo Grotius’ 1609 Mare Liberum is the classic exposition of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas – but it was written to further Dutch (and Protestant) interests.

With steam, seas started shrinking – and science has had the unintended effect of stripping away enchantment. Blandly impersonal bulk shipping, and leisure cruisers overpowering Venice, are symbols of a subtle danger to add to climate change, overfishing, and pollution. The sea will always spring surprises, but we plainly need to reimagine our coasts. The Boundless Sea reminds us brilliantly of once brand-new landfalls – times when endless oceans glittered with primordial possibilities.

This review first appeared in the Irish Times on 26th October 2019, and is reproduced with permission

Gloucestershire’s genius loci

Down in the Valley: A Writer’s Landscape, Laurie Lee, Penguin, 2019

Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959) is a classic of English rural writing, lauded for its evocation of Gloucestershire’s Slad Valley in the early 20th century, and the last days of an intensely-experienced, millennium-old way of life. This slender but well-conceived volume revisits some of these scenes and themes, and adds new ones, through interviews conducted with Mr Lee in 1994, three years before his death.

We find ourselves again at the village pond with its swimming children and coots, and the corpse of poor suicidal Miss Flynn – exploring old ways across the hilltops, made impassable by ‘fallen trees and rocks, and abandoned cavaliers, cannon, armour’ – carousing in the Woolpack – superstitiously shunning slumped cottages, and sinister gibbets. We also encounter more of the valley’s eccentric inhabitants and some of Mr Lee’s closely-observed and unpretentious poetry: ‘

And the partridge draws back his string / and shoots like a buzzing arrow / over grained and mahogany fields.

The author embraced modernity even as he regretted its ravages. He relished James Joyce, jazz, travel, and even war, volunteering to fight Franco – but he was always aware of the brooding presences underlying daily life. Beneath Slad’s slopes lay deep sleepers, from the Stone Age to people he’d known in his youth. Behind the spinking blackbirds, stridulating grasshoppers and strains of Elgar, he heard timeless stories told in West Country dialect or the tones of the King James Bible. He read great books in the greenwood, and when he drank summer’s cider with the blooming Rosie, felt rooted in an English Arcadia, at one with the ancients.

This is a charming tribute to a genial and gifted author who blended darkness with light, and realism with romance, to superb effect, in the service of a special place – and all of England.

The review first appeared in the 22nd January 2020 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

A Home Counties St George

Hollow Places – An Unusual History of Land and Legend

Christopher Hadley, William Collins, £20

Early one 1830s morning, workmen were uprooting an ancient yew near Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire when the tree fell unexpectedly – exposing a huge cavity, and evoking superstitions of ‘Piers Shonks’, who slew a dragon and defied the Devil. So begins a sensitively intelligent excavation into Hertfordshire history, the English imagination and omnipresent myth.

The cavity is supposed to be the dragon’s grave – the first of many ‘hollow places’ explored in the earth, historical accounts, and ourselves. Mythology glides into geology and palaeontology as we visit Purbeck, where Shonks’ slab was quarried, and recall that dinosaur fossils were once seen as dragons’ bones.

Where there are monsters there must be champions, ergo Hercules, Cadmus, Beowulf, St. George – and Shonks, whose surname suggests great stature. Versions of the story make him a Christian knight, superhuman archer, or defender of ancient liberties, or all these simultaneously. His tomb is in the church’s wall, and this too makes him anomalous – a protector, or needing protection? Mythic motifs intertwine like foliage around the face of a Green Man, and ghosts stir even in the quiet Home Counties – an unsettling truth known even to those who tried to exorcise them in the name of God, or ‘rational’ modernity.

To conventional historians, Piers Shonks is a signatory to dull 13th-century legal deeds – yet he ‘survives’ outside such frames of reference, paradoxically preserved because of the impossibilities yoked to his name. The enchantment-hunting author traces the dragon-slayer’s progress through bestiaries, tree-lore, chivalric literature, county history, Norman law, trial by combat, the Dissolution, Puritan vandalism, agricultural ‘improvements’, and early antiquarians. He enlists Matthew Paris, John Aubrey, William Cowper, M R James, and others to show there is always more than one ‘reality’, or single story.

Myths, he finds, are really memories – they shaped history, and recur, holding truths about our deepest hopes and fears, perhaps especially in a post-Christian country when

We have lots of hollow places and less and less to put in them.

Piers Shonks lies in the grave but battles on forever, far beyond the borders of Hertfordshire and heavy bonds of earth.

This review first appeared in the 4th December 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

Solar power

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV

Philip Mansel, London: Allen Lane, 2019, 568 pages, £30

British historian Philip Mansel is fascinated by splendour and eclipse – the firework ascent of cities and courts, their fizzling out and falling to earth. After the Bonapartes, Louis XVIII, and the entire Levant, now it is the turn of Louis XIV, who more than three centuries after his death feeds France’s view of herself, and the world’s views of France.

Depending on perspective (and year), Louis was the divinely sanctioned ‘Sun King’, the new Apollo, cynosure of Europe, courageous marshal, gifted tactician, patron of the arts, embodiment of perfection – or bankrupter of France, disturber of European peace, bearer of grudges, bigot, despot, a man more interested in dancing than the destitute. Mansel shows all the facets of this spangled enigma, and evokes wonderfully an era that was both brilliant and brittle.

There have been many studies of the ‘gift from God’ (he was christened Louis Dieudonné). The quantity reflects his longevity, and the glamour of his France, his period – the artistic achievements, febrile politics, stylised warfare, cynical aphorisms, gossipy intrigue, and poised élan of bejewelled and long-haired leaders as depicted by Le Brun and Van Dyck – monarchs processing towards modernity armoured in ancient chivalry.

The first biographers were contemporaries – like the Marquis de Dangeau, whose lifetime reputation as ‘the best card-player in France’ is borne out by the careful insipidity of his Memoirs. The Duc de Saint-Simon’s account is livelier, if less reliable. Saint-Simon’s father had been an intimate of Louis XIII, but Saint-Simon fils had Frondiste sympathies (favouring the nobility over the monarchy), and resented Louis’ promotion of talented bourgeois ministers (although sometimes genealogy-obsessed Louis prioritised blue blood). He nonetheless acknowledged the King’s courage, grace, handsomeness, and ‘grand mien’.

Madame de Sévigné’s Letters are famously astute, but even she was capable of being hypnotised by Versailles, or the costliness of a diamonded décolletage. Voltaire portrayed Louis’ age as one of gathering enlightenment, even though he had been imprisoned for satirising the royal family. Prussian ambassador Ezekiel Spanheim’s recollections were coloured by Protestant as well as national biases, but he too marvelled at the splendid symbology. Female chroniclers have included Nancy Mitford (1966), Lucy Norton (1982), Anne Somerset (2004) and Antonia Fraser (2007), intrigued by the remarkable women who orbited the monarch, but also possessed strong personal gravity fields. Beyond biography, Louis’ fame was burnished and refracted through the scintillating writings of Boileau, Corneille, La Fontaine, Molière, Racine and Rochefoucauld – while countless later writers have paid tribute to his state’s swaggering potency, exemplified by the sinisterly mysterious affair of ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.

The ‘Sun King’ soubriquet stemmed from a masque of 1653, in which the teenaged Louis danced gracefully as Apollo, wearing a spectacular costume embroidered with a sun-in-splendour. Besotted watchers saw the brightest and highest star in Europe’s firmament, bringer of heat and light, harbinger of universal harmony after the terrible Fronde rebellions. Louis was a lifelong dancer, and was instrumental in the codification of ballet as art form. The young King’s courts were exuberantly alive; when Cardinal Maldacini first saw the laughing, chattering court, he exclaimed delightedly, ‘But this is just like a brothel!’ Louis’ life was set to a glorious soundtrack – the highly disciplined, intricate, lovely works of Jean Baptiste Lully, director of the Académie Royale de Musique, devoted royalist and fierce defender of musical ‘Frenchness’ despite being a Florentine.

In 1660, Louis married his cousin Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain, ending a war, and extending French influence southwards. But she was not beautiful, and was pious, proud and stiff, unable to accommodate herself to freer French manners. Louis sought solace in mistresses, some of whom became famous in their own right – especially Mesdames de Montespan and de Maintenon – comets in his constellation, falling in and out of favour between shorter-lived mistresses, bearing bastards who became Princes of the Blood, to the helpless chagrin of the Queen. There is an apocryphal anecdote about an encounter between old and new mistresses on the king’s private staircase, in which Madame de Maintenon enquired superbly of de Montespan, ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’

Louis was publicly attentive to Maria Teresa, and customarily retired to her bed (for a while). She bore him six children, of whom Louis was genuinely fond – and about whom he was distraught, as all but one predeceased their parents. When Maria Teresa died in 1683, he was ruefully reflective – ‘This is the only time she has ever given me any trouble’. Soon afterwards, he married Madame de Maintenon – discreetly, because Madame de Maintenon liked to be mysterious, after Louis’ death burning the letters he had sent her, a great loss to history.

Some women would do almost anything to get to, or stay at, court. In 1676, the Marquise de Brinvilliers was beheaded and burned after confessing to crimes ranging from incest to ordering Black Masses and killing her brothers and husband. She complained she was only one of many ladies involved in such activities, so Louis launched an enquiry, the Chambre Ardente, under Paris’s Chief of Police, Nicholas de la Reynie. Reynie uncovered a netherworld of abortionists, astrologers, counterfeiters, defrocked priests, kidnappers, procurers, prostitutes of both sexes, vendors of philtres and ‘succession powders’ (poisons), and witches.

There were sensational trials, like that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who answered Reynie’s question whether she had seen the Devil, and what he looked like, with ‘Small, dark and ugly, just like you!’ She was acquitted – but 36 less well-connected people (many probably guilty) would be burned, 34 banished or fined, and four sent to naval galleys. When enquirers got as far as the private apartments of Madame de Montespan, they became less ardent, and the enquiry was wound up. The King ordered the papers burned, but luckily copies were kept, testament to the limits of his reach and the superficiality of the era’s supposed sophistication. There were more than reputational ramifications. Louis’s refusal to employ Eugene de Soissons, whose mother had been implicated, impelled him to transfer allegiance. As Prince Eugene of Savoy, he would inflict devastating blows on French forces at Blenheim, Malplaquet and Oudenarde.

If Louis was Apollo, he was also Mars, presiding over five wars. His early kingship was marked by near-constant campaigning, in which he displayed great courage. He surrounded himself with personally loyal guardsmen, and interested himself in everything from their ancestry to their uniforms. He prized Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, whose star-shaped fortresses and theories on siege warfare set the European standard for a century, and whose fortified ports sheltered ever more French-flagged vessels, traversing the globe from La Rochelle to Louisiana, Marseilles to Martinique. Louis was less insightful about the vessels themselves, insisting on using slow and cumbersome galleys after other navies had moved on – while French-made cannon were notoriously liable to explode. Mansel avers that the average height of French soldiery decreased over Louis’ reign – the dysgenic effect of placing one’s jeunesse dorée always in the vanguard.

The King was a hugely popular spectacle, almost a cult figure. In 1698, the English poet Matthew Prior marvelled at the ‘strange veneration’ in which he was held by the poor. Versailles was famously open to any Parisian ‘monkeys and rabbits’ (as one snob sniffed), so long as they were respectably dressed. Swords could be hired at the gates by anyone who wanted to play at being a courtier, hob-nob with princes, and watch the King eat. The monarch whose reign became a byword for absolutism, whose own children trembled at his approach, was often ironically accessible.

Versailles was worth seeing in its own right, a marvel of the age, and ours – the former hunting lodge in a state of constant transformation, being made and re-made on the most lavish of scales, even in wartime. Louis saw it as a place to keep potential aristocratic enemies close and as setting for himself and his gem-encrusted retinue. He was goaded into action by seeing finance minister’s Nicolas Fouquet’s new, too-lavish-to-be-borne Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau in 1661. He was heard murmuring to his mother ‘Ah Madame, should we not make these people disgorge?’ Fouquet was arrested soon afterwards on convenient (but perhaps justified) charges of corruption, and died in prison. His architects were moved from Vaux to Versailles, with fixtures, including 1,000 orange trees. A hydro-engineering tour-de-force, the ‘Machine de Marly’, carried water ten kilometres from the Seine to the new fountains of Versailles and Marly – nature conquered, nature ruled, His Most Christian Majesty exercising Biblical dominion over unreason. As Ehrenfield Kluckert observes in European Garden Design, Versailles was envisaged as,

an image in miniature of a new spatial organisation, signifying a new political order, indeed a new world order…the world appears as ordered space, a world of sun and light.

Versailles was an anteroom to Louis’ idea of Paradise, its ponderous elevations reproaching restive Paris (and concealing often inconvenient and unhygienic rooms). The garden’s alleys, boskets, parterres, pergolas, pools, statuary, visual axes and winding paths offered moral lessons as well as vistas – all infinitely reflected in the famous Hall of Mirrors. Beyond, there were extensive forests offering good hunting, and opportunities for classical allegory. In the background there were always builders and gardeners – in the foreground, a constant coming and going across marble floors. Aristocrats, artists, beauties, card-players, charlatans, churchmen, envoys, financiers, generals, intellectuals, ministers, musicians, petitioners, princes and wits came together in a cushioning of Savonnerie carpets and Gobelin tapestries, surrounded by stone national heroes, the King’s dogs, and fresh flowers, the whole ensemble lit by countless gilt chandeliers.

The King and his vision melded so completely that even now Versailles epitomises France at her apex. Versailles inspired palaces from England to Russia, and escaped destruction during the Revolution. Prussia’s Wilhelm I chose it as his symbolic base whilst besieging Paris in 1870, and the following year it was the setting for the Proclamation of the German Empire – which is why it was gloatingly chosen for the Germany-gelding 1919 Treaty. Today, eight million tourists visit annually to marvel at its magnitude, and marked contrast with today’s etiolated État.

Louis never forgot the Fronde rebellion, and never fully forgave those who had played prominent parts. After Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, he became his own first minister, forbidding the sealing or signing of documents or the making of payments without his permission. Ministers were chosen partly for their capacity for loyalty – his choices sometimes fortunate (Colbert), other times less so (Mansel singles out Louvois, Chamillart and Villeroy). Anthony Hamilton’s Memoires de Comte du Grammont describes accurately how

The great became small under an absolute master…those who had behaved like petty tyrants in the provinces and on the frontiers were now no more than governors.

Yet Louis always knew there were limits to the most puissant king’s powers, and almost certainly never said ‘L’etat, cest moi’.

Autocracy was probably inevitable. Less so, and much more damaging, were his religious policies. In private, Louis could be nuanced, and his relations with Rome sometimes strained – even occasionally his relationship with God. After a major defeat at Ramillies, he complained ‘God seems to have forgotten all that I have done for him’. He was also aware of falling short of the Christian ideal of marriage. Nancy Mitford derides Louis’ religious views as ‘those of a clever child’ – ostentatiously observant, and well-versed in theology, but lacking humility, repentance or social concern.

But the enlightener was also an avatar, even in his own opinion, divinely appointed, thought capable of curing smallpox by touch. The rational founder of the Academy of Sciences and the ground-breaking Saint-Cyr school for girls could be deeply superstitious. Saint-Simon recounts a mysterious 1699 episode in which the King granted two hour-long private interviews to a Provençal farrier who claimed to have seen Maria Teresa’s ghost. The King was always capable of being edified by brave preachers, or Madame de Maintenon. His earnest desire to bring order and unity to ‘the eldest daughter of the Church’ deeply harmed French interests.

His detestation of Jansenism was a time-wasting fixation – but his 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (by which his grandfather had guaranteed the rights of Protestants) was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. The harassed Huguenots were disproportionately wealthy and well-educated, and when they fled they took their knowledge, skills and wealth, combined now with resentment. Exiles embedded themselves in the banking, business, cultural, military and political lives of France’s growing roster of enemies, and exerted all kinds of pressures against their persecutor.

Stubborn belief in the divine rights of kings also made Louis support the exiled Stuarts, ruining relations with Parliamentary and then William and Anne’s England. His brain stiffened with sermons, as his body was swelling with gargantuan meals. By the late 1690s, Nancy Mitford notes,

The king in his new found piety now only admitted virtuous men to his Council, and as a result public affairs were by no means flourishing.

By summer 1715, France’s finances were shot to pieces – revenues were spent four years in advance – and the star round which worlds had revolved was going supernova.

Louis’ health had generally not been bad, his huge food intake partly counterweighed by dancing, hunting, and walking while inspecting works. When he had had problems he had faced them with superlative stoicism. During a 1686 operation to deal with an anal fistula, he was cut eight times with scissors and twice with a lancet, and didn’t even alter his breathing, or say anything except to encourage the surgeon, C. F. Felix. An hour later, he held his usual levee. Felix was subsequently besieged by courtiers asking him to perform the operation on them, so they could have something in common with the King. Those who did not require the procedure were reportedly greatly annoyed – while those who did ‘could not conceal their pride and joy’. Felix was Louis’ only capable medical man. Other doctors prematurely dispatched his wife, son, eldest grandson, grandaughter-in-law, two great-grandsons, and eventually even himself. (His great-grandson, the future Louis XV, might also have succumbed had not his governess kept the quacks away.)

But now, the balletic legs had gone numb, and black with gangrene – especially the left, so prominent in Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous 1700 portrait. Overeating was overtaking him at last, and his stomach was ‘on fire’; a post-mortem would show his intestines were grossly distended. Doctors only suggested bleeding or drinking asses’ milk. But he retained his famous sang-froid, apostrophising his five-year-old successor, holding long, calm conversations with weeping courtiers, Madame de Maintenon and his nephew, the Duc d’Orléans (whom he wisely appointed regent until Louis came of age). On 27 August, Mansel records admiringly, he

gave orders to the Ministre de la Maison for the transport of his heart to the church of Saint-Louis in Paris, as calmly as if he was ordering a new fountain for Marly.

Albert Serra’s 2016 film The Death of Louis XIV gives a moving portrait of the dimming sun. Sometimes he would rally, and Orléans’ apartments would empty – only to fill again whenever the King relapsed. He snuffed out suddenly at 8.23 am on 1 September, and an era was over – to the profit of London gamblers, and jubilation from those same Parisians who had once afforded him ‘strange veneration’. Saint-Simon shook his head sadly,

The King was but little regretted…The people ruined, overwhelmed, desperate, gave thanks to God, with a scandalous éclat.

Jean-Baptiste Massillon’s funeral oration at the Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité praised Louis as ‘more magnificent than Solomon’, but went on to lament

an entire century of horror and carnage, the elite of the French nobility precipitated into the grave, so many ancient lines extinguished, so many inconsolable mothers…our countryside deserted…our towns laid waste; our peoples exhausted…burning, bloodshed, blasphemy, abomination and all the horrors of which war is the father.

Louis had expanded and shaped France’s frontiers, incorporating Alsatians, Burgundians and Flemings fully into the national family, with major towns like Dunkirk, Lille and Strasbourg. Autocracy plus his personal qualities had cemented French identity. He had put Bourbons on Spain’s throne, and taken territories across the globe. But the cost had been astronomical – and he had picked the wrong side in too many conflicts. England, Austria, Prussia and Savoy all grew more powerful as a result of his mistaken policies, and his acquisitions in India, Canada and Louisiana had to be given up. The dictatorial powers he had assumed would be even more abused by his successors, and as late as 1789 the economic effects of his profligacy could still be felt, becoming, in Mansel’s view, ‘the trigger for the Revolution’. Louis’ armorial crests and statues were smashed in towns across France, and Versailles, the once throbbing heart of Europe, was downgraded to a museum.

Between the Bourbon restoration and the end of the Second Empire, he was viewed more sympathetically, while post-1870 Presidents have all benefited from his centralisation of powers, and mantled themselves in quasi-monarchical mystique. De Gaulle – from a royalist family, with Jacobite connections, from Lille, one of Louis’ conquests – owned portraits of Louis and described the Fifth Republic as ‘an elective monarchy’, and his ‘certain idea of France’ lingers sadly still. Versailles is again one of the great sights of Europe, and its creator is more admired now than a century ago – ironically, just as the country he sought to serve tilts towards cultural and demographic denouement. At times, Louis’ world feels infinitely far from ours – but by shining such strong lights on it Philip Mansel unexpectedly illuminates modernity.

This review first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

Spirit guide

Ghostland, Edward Parnell, London: William Collins; 2019, £16.99

‘Always the ghosts’, Edward Parnell remembers, looking back over his Lincolnshire childhood. After the daydreaming 1960s, the sudden uncertainty of the 1970s manifested itself in bitter tension and a fascination with all things folkloric and paranormal. Into an unsettling world of candle-lit houses and angry political noises off came the films Penda’s Fen, Wicker Man and Robin Redbreast, Tales of the Unexpected and BBC Christmas ghost stories, children’s series such as The Children of the Stones and sensations about demonic possessions, lake monsters and poltergeists. The author absorbed this atmosphere unthinkingly; since then, he has become even more haunted.

England reputedly has more ghosts per square mile than any other country, as well as literary ghosts going back at least as far as Hamlet. A fusion of Christian, Germanic, Nordic and British beliefs, and a passionate interest in the past, have deposited thick supernatural seams. These were mined extensively in the 19th century, as conservative, Romantic and Theosophical thinkers reacted instinctively to changes that threatened to strip away charm and mystery and invalidate ideas of revelation and afterlives. As Peter Ackroyd observed in The English Ghost (2010): ‘The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling’.

Parnell has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this eldritch tradition, from Victorian table-tappers seeking news of beloved dead to modern psychogeographers. With great lyrical power, he carries us by astral plane to bewitched backwoods from Alloway in Ayrshire to Zennor in Cornwall, noting coincidences, connections, time-slips and unifying motifs such as earthworks, labyrinths, lighthouses, open tombs, sleeping guardians and standing stones. Birds are hugely important to the author, because they are themselves ghost-like, and were to early Christians symbols of souls. His birds are airy wraiths, rare and restless revenants – whether choughs overflying megaliths, the kingfisher in A L Barker’s Submerged (2002), the owl he always sought in Dorset or the ominous ones on Alan Garner’s Owl Service (1967).

Bound up intimately with folk-tales, Gothic novels, Spiritualist tomes, tweedy Edwardian fantasies and Hammer horrors are closer ghosts, in the shape of the author’s brother, father and mother, stolen away by diseases as irresistibly malevolent as any entity imagined by Algernon Blackwood. His family’s actuality, the solidity of the country he and they inhabited, seem to him almost as illusions—a terrifyingly thin superimposition over a vast randomness as cold as the thing that sleeps beneath the Fens in John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow (1968). Ghostland seems as mirage-ridden as Eliot’s waste, with even less possibility of escape. Where are the dead who loved us, whom we have loved? Parnell demands to know. He expects no reply, but nevertheless keeps knocking on the ground.

Memory may be the greatest ghost, fey, flickering, seductive, selective and unreliable. It is akin to the sensitivity that makes some see spectres and others remain oblivious. Which memories are real, which half-remembered, which assembled afterwards? What has been forgotten, what suppressed? In his earnest quest to understand, Parnell brilliantly enlists writers as unlike as Walter de La Mare and W. G. Sebald to plumb the pits and possibilities of personal (and collective) memory. Memories are illogical, shapeshifting, and often unnerving.

As with one of M. R. James’ over-curious antiquarians, the author can’t stop digging into his overthrown walls. He knows there may be dangers in delving too deeply, but it would be more dangerous to forget: ‘If I stop looking back everything that ever happened to us will cease to exist’. Time turns in on itself, everything alters and now, whichever way he looks across this haunted realm, he seems to see his family flitting in front.

This review first appeared in the 30th October 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

New Country Life and Quadrant reviews…

The 30th October issue of Country Life carries my review of Edward Parnell’s Ghostland – British eeriness seen through a deeply personal prism. Perfect reading for the season (or any other time).

The November issue of Australia’s renowned Quadrant carries my jumbo review of Philip Mansel’s brilliant Louis XIV biography, King of the World. Really ought to be owned by anyone interested in French, monarchical or C.17 history.

Latest Irish Times review

David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea – review

The 26th October 2019 issue of the Irish Times carries my review of David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea – his compendious and learned exploration of the separate and intermingling histories of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans from prehistory to today. An absorbing and useful resource for anyone interested in maritime (and economic) history

Stream of national consciousness

Mudlarking

Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury, 2019

The 1950 B-film The Mudlark tells of an urchin who ekes out an unpleasant existence scavenging the slimy Thames foreshore. He finds a coin bearing the head of Queen Victoria, and creeps into Windsor Castle to see the sequestered sovereign for himself. Through sheer goodhearted pluck, he succeeds where sophisticated politicians have failed, appealing to the Queen’s feelings and reawakening her sense of public duty. Modern mudlarking is a hobby rather than a necessity, but chance finds of apparently insignificant items can convey powerful emotions.

Over 23 squelchy years, Lara Maiklem has amassed a battered and stained collection of everyday things turned talismanic by time, and immersion. The Thames is the longest archaeological site in the world, running from the obelisk at Teddington marking the limit of the tidal Thames to its battered cousins on the Yantlet Line between Southend and Hoo. She has prospected as much of this frequently feculent, sometimes toxic Troy as she can, often on hands and knees, blasted by easterlies, disoriented in fogs, or almost cut off by tides. She has crossed from Middlesex to Surrey dry-shod, pried among the ribs of broken ships, seen Traitor’s Gate from water-level, and considered the course of riparian history from Greenwich, ‘where time begins at the Prime Meridian’.

She disdains metal-detecting as disrespectfully predatory. Her trove nevertheless encompasses amber, garnets, pieces of Londinium hypocaust, beads, tiles, boar tusks, gold lace-ends, handmade bricks, nit-combs, thimbles, buckled shoes, shards of bellarmines and clay pipes, hand-blown bottles, toy soldiers, and letters of the drowned Dove typeface, tipped into the Thames by its high-minded creator in 1913 to avoid its use on lesser texts (she has perhaps presumptuously used it for chapter headers). Other finds are too redolent to be retrievable – recent wedding rings, or the heavy box labelled ‘Remains of the Late…’Another time, she watched the ‘peaceful, angelic’ body of a girl sailing gracefully seawards. 

Henry Mayhew appears inevitably, documenting a sad cadre of coal-picking and rope-thieving teenagers, and even sadder ‘old women of the lowest grade’. As in other books about the Thames, there are stock characters – homesick Romans, Viking marauders, Tudor theatre-goers, Georgian watermen, Pip from Great Expectations – plus Henry VIII, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, and Captain Kidd. But this author augments the Thamesian tally, summoning old Londoners out of silty suspension from a discarded Victoria Cross or a pot-lid. There are other mudlarking books, but this one offers engaging insight into an amphibian ambience of strongly-marked characters, semi-secret exploits and outlandish theories. Maiklem is not alone in resorting to the river for salvation as much as salvage – ‘It healed my broken heart’. Centuries earlier, Edmund Spenser similarly ‘walkt forth to ease my payne / Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes’.

The author is attuned – glimpsing faces in walls, sensing ‘ghostly essences’, especially of her boat-builder ancestors, seeing the river almost as a deity requiring propitiation. The key to spotting objects, she reflects, is ‘to relax and look through the surface’ (a prosthetic eye once stared startlingly back). But she also tells how to dry out old iron, and contributes knowledgably to antiquarian archives. Today’s Society of Mudlarks is a learned and unexpectedly exclusionary body infinitely far from Mayhew-era connotations.

The foreshore is falling away, as seas rise, and the city subsides. The ‘sacred river’ classicised by Turner and commemorated by Peter Ackroyd, repository of Englishness, medieval pilgrims’ tokens, modern Hindu statuettes, and peace-seeking suicides, is also a sewer. The river is cleaner than it used to be, but after rain, all outfalls ooze cotton buds, nappies, condoms, tampons, medical waste, and gobbets of fat. The sediments that hold sentiment leach arsenic, mercury and cadmium. Today’s coins are pinchbeck, fizzling after a few years, oxidising Elizabeth II into anonymity – while interloping mussels and crabs devastate native species.

The further downriver, the more evident England’s erosion; recent trash at Tilbury ‘tells a story of overconsumption and wanton waste’. Vast mounds of soiled, single-use junk befit a recent past whose voices cry ‘loud and angry’ on the estuarial wind. It is hard to imagine such stuff ever feeling evocative, but while we hope for transmutation we can follow Lara Maiklem’s footprints down to the tideline and back.

This review first appeared in The Spectator, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

Territorial waters

The Way to the Sea

Caroline Crampton, Granta, £16.99

The Frayed Atlantic Edge

David Gange, William Collins, £18.99

Confluence of the Thames and the Medway, by J. M. W. Turner

Seawater pulses through the veins of our islands, the tang of open water reaching to the furthest points inland. Insularity has always been our destiny, determining daily life and deepest meanings even before Albion loomed out of the haze. Early Britons took to boats from necessity, but also from sheer curiosity about what lay behind horizons, whether markets for goods, countries for converting or lands of eternal youth.

These two books compare the Kingdom’s coastline in its vastness and variety, and show the marked contrast between ambiguous east and tumultuous west. Their longitudes are different, but both authors share a passion for re-orienting mainstream histories and making us look to our littorals.

Caroline Crampton’s source-to-sea exploration of the Thames starts in Gloucestershire, at the unexpectedly indeterminate spot where the river seeps forth from Stygian springs to start its 215-mile descent through the English imagination. The river gathers significance and strength as it passes William Morris’s Kelmscott, Oxford’s ‘lost causes’, Paul Nash’s Wittenham, Wind in the Willows country, Stanley Spencer’s resurrections, brooding Windsor, Magna Carta’s meadows, dissolved abbeys and Cardinal Wolsey’s hubristic Hampton Court, before even reaching London. There, it gains innumerable new tributaries before escaping out the Essex side, to flow through ever-widening flats until somewhere beyond Shoeburyness, where brackishness finally turns full salt.

The author’s parents owned a yacht in the Medway and many of her youthful days were spent between places and states of mind, channel-finding, watching ships and seeing the banks change, tacking and thinking, yawing and yarning. She saw the Docklands ‘regenerated’ and learned indignantly of earlier displacements of superfluous communities. Her Thames is tainted with secret shames, its course a palimpsest of lingering class resentments, its estuary a repository of industrial toxins, unmarked graves and unexploded bombs. But she also finds treasures, such as aquamarine 5th-century glassware retrieved from sucking ooze, discovers fascinating stories, and recalls enchanted hours when sea, shores and sky combined in brilliant tableaux. 

Duntulm in the Inner Hebrides. Picture: Derek Turner

Like his chosen coast, David Gange’s book is harder-edged. He resorts courageously to a kayak, entrusting this cockleshell to the rigours of the Atlantic, from Out Stack to Land’s End. By day, he combats cross-currents around the feet of Scylla-like cliffs, creeps awestruck through sea-arches reminiscent of cathedrals, is glared at by gannets, meets whales uncomfortably close to and tries not to turn turtle, until his shoulders and torso ache with tiredness. At nights, he reads and rests beside desolate tidelines or casually ascends some summit, almost as if he believes he might wake to the sight of Avalon. Orcadian navigators, Irish saints and Welsh pilgrims paddle out from his pages, taking us to reaches that were roads when London was a rumour.

He conjures up cruelty and ‘dark histories’. This is an intensely political book, ruing the ‘urban, inland ascendancy’ that has made the far west culturally as well as geographically marginal, in the interests of commerce and the name of modernity.

But there is also uncomplicated beauty, and wonderful descriptions of elemental moments when survival depends on skill and the boat becomes the author’s homeland. His sea is stormy, but it is also ‘a great heart’, its islands wombs as much as tombs. Strewing poems in his wake, he finds keening sadness along these frayed fringes, and causes for righteous anger, but also optimism in a world wanting landfall – new ways of living and of viewing the future, with more space for small communities and individual freedom. As he struggles to stay afloat, he dreams of a time when the wave-battered west is less a land of legend than a launch-pad into immensity.

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission