Can the Greens change their colours?

Greens often make conservatives and populists see red – or Reds. In 2004, Australian politician John Anderson called his country’s Greens ‘watermelons…green on the outside, and very, very, very red on the inside’. His fruity metaphor has become something of a conservative cliché. It is easy to see why.

Green policies are frequently further to the left than those of Democratic, Labour or Socialist parties, and their public representatives more egregiously egalitarian and politically correct. Populists in particular often view Greens as enemies of the nation, reject their warnings as hysteria, and take pleasure in baiting them as elitists and hypocrites. President Trump’s sons pose with elephants they have shot, Nigel Farage consoled himself for Brexit delay by yanking terrified sharks out of their element, and Jair Bolsonaro blamed environmental activists (without any evidence) for the wild-fires that devastated parts of the Amazon.

Such provocations elicit ill-tempered responses, and entrench mutual misunderstanding and dislike. This weakens the populist cause, alienating it unnecessarily from a cultural constituency concerned about the environment, including many young people. This is not to mention stymying vital, meaningful cross-border, cross-party action to protect and restore the natural world we all share, and ought to prize. The environment is far too important to be consigned to any single faction.

Etymology alone shows that the environment should be a central concern for the Right. Conservation and conservatism are adjacent lexicographically and inseparable logically. Those who cherish traditions must necessarily cherish the places where those traditions have taken root. National character is deeply dependent on the natural character of the redolent places where a nation’s inhabitants have embedded themselves over centuries, and geography has ensconced itself in folk-memory and everyday awareness.

What would England be without the White Cliffs, Home Counties fields, North Country moors, or the east’s vast Fens? What would Ireland be without its ‘forty shades of green’? What would Germany be without its Gothic greenwood – or France its timeless Profonde – or America the untrammelled West? Every state has emblematic animals and plants without which it would be subtly yet utterly different – America’s eagle, Australia’s kangaroo, Austria’s edelweiss, China’s lotus, Egypt’s crocodile, England’s oak, India’s tiger, Russia’s bear, or Wales’s daffodil.

The Republicans and Tories were once implicitly parties of the country, with representatives knowledgeable about farming, hunting, local customs and all other aspects of rural life. This reality was given fictive life in Sir Roger de Coverley, Joseph Addison’s kindly eighteenth century baronet – an unpretentious gentleman living in a big house but acutely conscious of obligations, and discerning divine imperatives in daily sounds, like when the crows calling in the nave of the ruined abbey ‘seem to be cawing in Another Region’.

A real exemplar was Edward Goldsmith. He helped set up the first environmental party in Europe, and was founder-publisher of The Ecologist (which was edited by his nephew, the Conservative peer Lord Goldsmith). He deplored the destruction of traditional societies at the homogenizing hands of capitalism, and was called a fascist for associating with France’s thoughtful Nouvelle Droite. Had the Conservatives not embraced economic liberalism during the 1980s, maybe the modern Green movement would have a different political hue.

Or maybe not, because the ideas percolating through other areas of society were also acting upon Greens. Far from celebrating, or even remembering, the complex connections between nations and nature, Greens started to signal contempt for such parochial attachments. Culture wars started to be waged against existing understandings of the countryside, most prominently hunting, which was seen as perpetuating old class orders – although the critique was normally couched in terms of animal cruelty (an argument, oddly enough, not extended to the more working-class recreation of angling, although that affected millions more animals). The Countryside Alliance ran a huge campaign against Tony Blair’s ban – one day, half a million rallied in Whitehall, accompanied by hounds and horns, listened to speeches and then went quietly home, leaving hardly a scrap of litter – and ultimately making no difference. Perhaps if they had been less conservative, they would have had more impact.

Caught up in Frankfurt School fashionability, mainstream Greens opted for cool instrumentalism, wherein the environment was seen as mere ‘resource’ – and universalism, seeing Western traditions as tainted. They kept nervily silent on immigration, while op-eds cavilled at the ‘lily-white’ hinterland, a supposed stronghold of philistine primitivism. Revolutionary conceptions ironically permeated a party dedicated to preserving nature’s equilibrium.

Conservatives should therefore care for animals and plants as cultural continuators, but also in their own right, as beautiful and interesting parts of a common world-organism – which some still call Creation. In Genesis 1:26, mankind is famously given

dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth

Human nature being what it is, this sanction was long used to legitimise cruelty towards animals and over-exploitation of resources. However, Genesis 2:15 adds the qualification –

And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it

This verse is cited by adherents of Christian Stewardship as evidence that the Earth has always been a sacred trust, enjoining careful cultivation of soils almost as much as souls. In Leviticus 25:5, God tells Moses the sublunary world requires regular respites, a sort of Sabbath, or ‘year of rest unto the land’. Christianity, the British vicar Giles Fraser wrote in UnHerd in August 2019, strongly implies living within limits, and without waste –

Give us our “daily bread” goes the Lord’s Prayer. Note daily. Not enough for the next several weeks.

Comparable sentiments may be located in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism and Sikhism. But scriptures of any kind are generally disdained by Greens, who tend towards either atheism, or a salad-bowl of ‘New Age’ beliefs, ranging from aromatherapy to Wicca. This is something else which distances them from conservatives and populists, who even when not personally observant feel residual affection for the religion of their parents.

Climate change is a key point of divergence – Greens often over-dramatic, populists too willing to dismiss dire prognostications as hyperbole or hoax. It seems unlikely to me that bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are more motivated by politics than by science – although even if they were, that would not mean their warnings should be ignored. If there is even a small chance that climate change is being caused or exacerbated by human activity, a truly conservative approach would be prudential avoidance.  

An irony of all this is that post-war conservative governments have usually been far better at environmental protection than non-conservative governments. Greens make many salutary points about the ugliness, unviability (and un-conservatism) of big business, free trade, and the throw-away society – but the worst polluters of recent history have been communist regimes. The erstwhile USSR was strewn with toxic towns, most notoriously Chernobyl; in China, the worst aspects of central planning have been combined with the worst of avaricious consumerism. The white dolphin of the Yangtze, which swam through Confucian and Chinese consciousness like a benign ghost, seems now to have become a ghost in earnest – a lovely, irreplaceable creature sacrificed for no reason whatsoever. The course of the Yangtze contrasts strikingly with that of the Thames, which was declared biologically dead in 1957, but now again hosts hundreds of species.

Properly elected governments and image-aware capitalists are infinitely more responsive to public pressure than tyrannies. The Republican record is mixed, but amongst other eco-achievements Theodore Roosevelt established the United Forest Service, five national parks, and 51 bird reserves. Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed both the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, while Ronald Reagan designated more than ten million acres as wilderness, the highest possible protection.

In November 1989, the supposedly ruthlessly Darwinian Margaret Thatcher made a resounding speech to the UN General Assembly, one coloured by her childhood Methodism as well as knowledge of chemistry:

The environmental challenge that confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world. Every country will be affected and no one can opt out.

In 2012, former head of Friends of the Earth Jonathan Porritt reflected, slightly wonderingly,

Thatcher…did more than anyone in the last 60 years to put green issues on the national agenda.

Groups like ConservAmerica and Britain’s Conservative Environment Network strive to capitalise upon such achievements, citing Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and many others in support of their ideal organic, self-sustaining communities in harmony with the biosphere.

Unfortunately, public pressure can work both ways, and populist client-groups can be as myopic as any. This is why President Trump thinks it politic to weaken protections for endangered animals, Brazil’s Bolsonaro facilitates land clearance and logging, and Germany’s AfD prioritises private cars over public transport. But those understandably irked by P.C. posturing should pause, and think of Margaret Thatcher’s truly Tory warning, her insight borne of history and theology

No generation has a freehold on this earth.

Republished from the October 2019 issue of Chronicles: The Magazine of American Culture. All rights reserved by the Charlemagne Institute

Emperor of imagination

King and Emperor – A New Life of Charlemagne

Janet L. Nelson, London: Allen Lane, 2019, 659 pages, £25

Charles the Great looms out of the swirling obscurity of post-Roman Europe like the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria, signalling simultaneously radical renewal and an alteration of everything that came before. As Janet Nelson illuminates in her new book, it is impossible to imagine the West without Charlemagne as figurative and literal progenitor.

The King of the Franks and the Lombards was physically imposing and long-lived, garnering greatness through both circumstance and character. His grandfather Charles Martel (nicknamed “The Hammer” for his prowess in battle) had been duke under Merovingian monarchs, but after almost three centuries they had become poor and decadent “do-nothing kings”, reduced to traversing their fraying domain in an ox-cart.

By 717, The Hammer was de facto monarch, a status reinforced by his epochal 732 victory over the Moors at the Battle of Tours. In 751, his son, Pepin (“The Short”, amusingly betrothed to “Bertha Broadfoot”) dispensed with the fiction, and consigned poor King Childeric III (“The Stupid”) and his son to monkhood. He expelled the Moors from France, added Aquitaine to his kingdom, and on his death in 768 left tw of his sons, Charles and Carloman, a jointly-held realm extending from Brittany to Regensburg and Frisia to the Pyrenees. Carloman died in 771, probably averting civil war.

From childhood – Dame Janet argues he was born in 748, not the usually assumed 742 – Charles was involved in affairs of state. At five, he rode out to greet the approaching Pope Stephen III (the first Pope to visit the Land of the Franks); by nine he was attending governing councils. He distinguished himself in war, backing up the dreaded furor teutonicus with good generalship and excellent weaponry. Franconian fearsomeness flavours an account of Charlemagne’s 773-4’s siege of Pavia in the 1881 popular history Bulfinch’s Mythology

Iron covered the fields and the roads; iron points reflected the rays of the sun. This iron, so hard, was borne by a people whose hearts were harder still.

What uplifted Charles above others were his interests in education, law, and religion, and willingness to take good advice. This man, who always had difficulty reading and writing, unexpectedly facilitated a renaissance for a continent seeking a new idea of civilization. This idea was explicated in a plethora of admonitions, annals, capitularies and charters in the elegant, new Carolingian minuscule script. Alcuin of York, leading light of Europe’s preeminent scholarly seat, became his tutor, and with others helped Charles found schools, endow monasteries, negotiate alliances, navigate theological disputes, promulgate ideals of Christian kingship, and hone his image and legacy as continuator-cum-harbinger.

As in later renaissances, classical culture was refreshed and reimagined – this time as Catholic, and around a new ethno-national conception called Europe. Great buildings rose, the first notation for European music was written, and the coinage was reformed, satisfyingly at Frankfurt, which is still the centre of German finance. The literature of Ovid was among the innumerable manuscripts  were retrieved from the Roman, alongside statues and other spoils brought to Aachen from Rome and Ravenna. Aachen’s church-palace was modelled on Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre and Antioch’s Golden Octagon, and re-used Roman masonry, while its undercroft cement is tinged pink with crushed brick.

Relations between Aachen and Rome warmed and cooled, but when Leo III crowned Charles Holy Roman Emperor in 800, both benefited. Charles obtained spiritual sanction and public prostration from the Vicar of Christ, and Leo had given the Eternal City the right to anoint the arbiter of Europe. The continent was theoretically more united than at any other time since the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, its subjects at least notionally followers of one faith.

The freshly renewed imperium developed neither a centralized administration nor even a coherent unifying idea – Voltaire’s joke that it wasn’t Holy, Roman or an Empire has force. But it elicited instant respect. Harun al-Rashid, of Arabian Nights fame, sent his new equal a lavish tribute, including a white elephant. But by that point, Charles was ageing, his kingdom beset by famines, epidemics and Danish raiders, and his favourite sons died. Suffering from gout and grief, he was troubled by ill-omens: the elephant’s demise and a lightning-strike on the golden apple finial on Aachen church. He slowly withdrew and absorbed himself in in his favourite book, Saint Augustine’s City of God. His only possible heir was his son Louis, whose soubriquet “The Pious” suggests essential unsuitability. So it proved, because shortly after the “Lighthouse of Europe” was interred in 814, the Carolingian peace unravelled.  Franks reverted to their fratricidal traditions, non- Franks renewed attacks, and soon Charles’s reign probably seemed like a land of lost content.

Despite this, or perhaps because he died before his kingdom fell into disorder, Charlemagne’s name today encapsulates good luck. His likeness is the model for the King of Hearts on playing cards, and gamblers say that those who have left a game in good time have done a ‘Faire Charlemagne’.

Franks attacked by Basques at Roncesvalles

After his death, nostalgists like Einhard and Notker ‘The Stammerer’ started to make the man of parts into a Man of Destiny. Charles metamorphosed into Charlemagne, central to the Matter of France, paralleling the Matter of Britain, a mythology of Trojan tales, slain giants, swan-knights, semi-sentient swords and transfiguring relics. The French flavour added Bayard the magic horse, the arch-traitor Ganelon, and Roland going down in glory with the Roncesvalles rearguard. This fictive Charles could be gullible or unjust, but he still seemed a paragon whose lost example leached into songs and verses carried continent-wide by jongleurs, cementing fond beliefs in perfect knights and a just king, warrior for Christ against exotic paynim.

The elevation of Charlemagne to the status of legend soon merged his memory with the history of Rome, as Alain Schnapp noted in The Discovery of the Past

…the Romans were confused with Charlemagne…theatres, amphitheatres and temples became towers of Roland, palaces of Pepin le Bref, gates of Ganelon.

At Hastings, the Normans came on to La Chanson de Roland – the Conqueror’s cleric half-brother Odo perhaps identifying with the poem’s soldier-martyr Bishop Turpin. Such songs were sung by Crusaders – whom the Muslims generically called ‘Franks’ – and Spanish Reconquistadores devoted to Santiago’s cult of St James the Moor-Slayer.

He and his paladins charge through the epic verse, political and religious metaphors, and folklore of Europe, from da Varagine’s Golden Legend to Dante, Petrarch and Ariosto, the Dutch Aiol, Denmark’s Holger Danske and Wales’s Campeu Charlyamen. ‘Charles’ became the root-word of Bulgarian, Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, and Slovak terms for king. He was canonized, albeit by the anti-Pope Paschal III, and at the ceremony Frederick Barbarossa presented a reliquary and mantled himself in Charles’s incorruptible aura.

Charlemagne was painted by Raphael and Durer, brought to the stage by Lope de Vega, and emulated by Napoleon. During World War I, the French and German navies both named ships after him. All these combative connotations notwithstanding, he rose irrepressibly after 1945 as an icon for Christian Democrat believers in a new kind of continent.

Nelson’s major new English-language biography is exceedingly welcome, because Britain and Charles mattered, and matter, to each other. Alcuin was far more than a codifier of Charles’s commands. He interpreted classical and patristic texts for Europe’s most influential individual and corresponded copiously with Hiberno-Saxon ecclesiastics on both banks of the Rhine – and generally exerted what Sir Frank Stenton called ‘

a continental reception of English learning which profoundly influenced the whole literature of the Carolingian age.

Charles aided Northumbria’s rulers, and meditated a matrimonial alliance with Mercia. Later Saxon kings imported European academicians, along with Charles’s legendarium. The earliest extant manuscript of La Chanson de Roland is held in the Bodleian, and Bayard’s legendary leap took place in Lincolnshire. Even England’s night-skies were enlisted, the Great Bear rustically referred to as Charles’s Wain. Later republicans paid ambivalent homage, Blake portraying him as personification of War and Dominion, and both Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams claimed descent. What one 1990s scholar sniffed at as “the Carolingian moment” is in a sense ongoing.

Dame Janet makes sense of this mythopoetic mélange by cleaving to sources, and making modest inferences where others have been carried away. She presupposes basic knowledge; those new to the subject could start with an overview like Friedrich Heer’s Charlemagne and his World (1975). She is an historiographer’s historiographer, proficient in several languages, averse to extrapolations yet sensitive to suggestions, performing analytic miracles with sketchy and tendentious documentation. Because of her caution, she persuasively paints a portrait of a man ‘radiating energy’, a shrewd interrogator, humorous, family-oriented, mourning dead comrades, seeing himself as joined with his subjects in ‘a bond of peace’. Nelson parses everything from poems to grain-price edicts to give fresh insights, but she doesn’t overlook the things the 21st century finds unsavoury, such as the murky fate of Carloman’s young sons, or the mass beheadings of prisoners-of-war, but clearly wants to find the good man behind the Great.

Scrupulous care is strictly inconsistent with chivalry, and King and Emperor is admittedly more edifying than it is exciting. However, as Bulfinch observes, “This prince, although the hero of numerous romantic legends, seems greater in history than in fiction”. Truth is mightier than myth, and Nelson’s powerful treatment is the closest we can get to a perennially compelling person who, through real deeds, bequeathed us a vast imaginative empire.

Republished from the September 2019 issue of Chronicles: The Magazine of American Culture. All rights reserved by the Charlemagne Institute

Unending journeys

The Unsettling of Europe – The Great Migration, 1945 to the Present

Peter Gatrell, Allen Lane, 2019, 548 pages, £30

Migration then…Germans expelled from Poland in 1945 – the ‘death march from Lodz’

Few subjects arouse such atavistic emotions as migration – whether the arrivals come as conquerors or as kin, fleeing ordeals or seeking opportunities. For incomers, migration can represent a dream, a rational choice, an urgent necessity, or a last hope. For recipient countries, it can be an infusion of energy, a reunion, a social challenge or an existential threat. By drawing parallels between today’s immigrations and earlier upheavals, Peter Gatrell seeks to prove that modern migration is a continuation of a generations-long process, just ‘another iteration’ rather than a replacing revolution.

The author is an economist at Manchester University, and an historian of modern migration, with a special interest in Russia. As one might expect from a denizen of the city that produced economic reductionists like John Bright, Richard Cobden, and Friedrich Engels, and the Guardian, Gatrell believes economics are of prime importance in understanding human affairs. He’s also politically progressive, and has a moral code influenced by certain non-conformist strains of Christianity.

That being said, he writes well and with good faith. He handles statistics assuredly, and evinces unfailing interest in even the most turgid academic analyses, or the provisions of some country’s long-scrapped immigration legislation. He has a highly-developed sense of duty – doggedly recording ethnic slurs of yore, viewing ‘political performance art’, or visiting the Museum of the Schengen Agreement. He has subjected himself to such earnest films as 1979’s Le Coup de Sirocco, about displaced pieds-noirs (‘black feet’ – the nickname given to migrants of European ancestry who fled Algeria after it gained independence) entering the couscous-canning business. Another, 1974’s Angst Essen Seele Auf chronicles the relationship between a Moroccan mechanic and an older German woman, and climaxes with the Moroccan developing a stomach ulcer brought on by the stresses he experienced as a migrant. Perhaps these films are not as woodenly didactic as they sound, but recounting their plots makes this book useful as a summation of how the modern narrative about migration has evolved.

Gatrell personalises a phenomenon about which there is too much generalisation. Mass migrations are made up of many individual choices, or lack of choices. He provides powerful stories to show why some people come, or go, or stay. Readers cannot fail to be impressed, or moved, by the courage, ingenuity and resilience of many migrants. Any of us could be aliens in certain contexts, and clearly we should empathise with those affected by disasters or war.

The book’s chief value may lie in its description of the ‘violent peacetime’ after World War Two – a time of displaced and traumatized millions, returning exiles, hasty border redrawing and bloody score-settling. The erstwhile Allies were facing off, and the Iron Curtain would soon descend. It was a time when countries were remade, revenges exacted, geo-strategies plotted, and ideologies given statehood. The author summons up tattered, phantom populations little known, or long forgotten, to mainstream Western history: royalist Serbs, anti-communist Croats and Slovenes, Balts, Cossacks and Ukrainians who had fought for the Germans, Armenians and (later) Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. These groups were often held in former Nazi concentration camps (certain places seem almost preordained to be places of permanent transit, and deep sadness).

Ethnic Germans embraced by Hitler found themselves after World War II expelled from territories they had held since the Middle Ages, their lives and property menaced by mobs, or soldiers, or both. Millions of them trekked west, a sad reversal of the epic 4th -6th century Völkerwanderung which had once energised Europe’s heartlands. When they ‘returned’ to Germany – which many of them had never even visited – they frequently found themselves unwelcome. Locals resented these Volksdeutsche as economic rivals, and sneered at their provincial manners. Leftist Germans regarded them as rebarbative reactionaries, while rightists viewed their presence as a reproachful reminder of national abasement.

We also learn of smaller but equally painful stories about the deportations, forced assimilations, liquidations, repatriations, and transfers of Romani, and ethnic subgroups such as Ingrian Finns, Lemkos, Pontic Greeks, Székelys, and others, as more homogenous republics emerged from the postwar dust. The Soviets were active ethno-social engineers, ‘encouraging’ internal migrations of able-bodied Russians to farm what they called the ‘Virgin Lands’ of Central Asia, or to Russify the Baltic coast.

Unsettling went on elsewhere, as Europe’s empires fell to ‘winds of change’. Ethnic Belgians, British, Dutch, French and Portuguese ex-colonials came, or were chased ‘home’, from colonies, where they found themselves suddenly of lower status, and leading more straitened lives. Many would translate their sense of loss into political conservatism, and discontent about non-white immigration.

Dark-skinned ex-colonials had it harder – especially Muslims. Islam has always presented particular problems for Europeans, especially on the historic Moor- and Ottoman-menaced edges. When French intellectual Éric Zemmour in 2019 compared Islamic dress to the uniforms of an army of occupation, this was to borrow Gatrell’s phrase again) ‘another iteration’ of an emotion that goes back to the time of Charlemagne. This is very hard on those Muslims who have demonstrated commitment to their new countries – like the harkis, pro-French ex-soldiers who fled Algeria with the whites after its independence.

Migration now…crossing the Mediterranean in un-seaworthy craft

European migration fluctuated, and took multiple forms – from the influx of penurious Cape Verdeans in Lisbon to English ex-bankers turning Tuscany into Chianti-shire. It also occurred within countries as local populations moved from countryside to city. Migrants could be simultaneously wanted and not welcome. They were cheap labour, consumers, and workers for ever-expanding welfare states. They were also pawns used by Gramscian ideologues to remake or undermine national identities – although earlier leftists had often been the first to sound the tocsins against migrants, seeing them as rivals, and a buttress for capitalism). Popular majorities of most countries generally did not want them, and politicians accordingly promised curbs, but these promises were rarely kept. Over decades, a democratic-demographic deficit – a refusal by governments of all kinds to take public worries about immigration seriously – helped erode public trust in all parties, all institutions.

Discontent over migration occasionally took focused form, as in Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech, Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel Camp of the Saints, the 1981 Heidelberg Manifesto in which German academics warned about the ‘infiltration of the German people’, Thilo Sarrazin’s 2010 book Germany Abolishes Itself, and in the rise of populist parties, and the Brexit referendum. Each instance was hysterically condemned, as political correctness moved from joke to religion. Leftist politicians increasingly ‘embraced’ the incoming tide, blustering about diversity equalling strength, while mainstream conservatives said migration didn’t matter as long as the economy worked. Politicians blithely expected civil servants to administer, and institutions to adjust to, endlessly altering, often ineffectual integration policies. Governments were also hypocritical – exemplified by the brutal way the morally self-preening British government expelled the Chagos Islanders from their islands between 1969 and 1973 to make way for an American airbase, and forbade them ever to return. It was not until 2002 that they were even offered compensatory accommodation in Britain.

The cultural mood shifted slowly, then quickly after 9/11. Conservatives found they could complain about multiculturalism without damaging their careers. But beneath this muted white noise of protest Europe continued to metamorphose. If current trends continue, many European countries will have changed their character completely before the end of this century, and probably forever.

Gatrell acknowledges the generally disconcerting nature of migration, and the problems with some individuals. But he believes any disturbance is counterbalanced by the economic prosperity and widening of cultural horizons that migrants can bring. But the difficulties are greater than he allows.

Migration is literally dislocating. It makes the long-familiar surreally strange, turning national communities into industrial estates, and homes into rented accommodation. The island of Lampedusa could stand as emblem – once the magnificently lonely, near-legendary homeland of The Leopard, but now merely a staging post for Africans passing through to Europe.

Europeans whose ancestors have been present since prehistory may now find themselves the only indigenes in their street. They are social animals suddenly stripped of a support network – a kind of cultural bereavement made worse by the fact that their new neighbours often flock together unembarrassedly along lines of birthplace, race or religion. Those who question these tendencies, or symptoms like higher crime, female genital mutilation, limits on free speech, or the incubation of terrorist cells, face everything from social media browbeating to persecution, legal sanctions, and even physical attack. The migrants are also often unhappy, finding out that local customs don’t always suit their needs, and aware they are there on sufferance. As one Italian journalist reflected ruefully in 1991, as Albanians descended in droves, ‘The dream of the Albanians has dissolved, but so too has that of the Italians’.

Politics in diverse states often degenerate into a tense 24/7 balancing act, in which relative discomforts are weighed. This group contends against that, this political consideration or cultural tradition vies against another, big business demands free movement of capital and labour, while ordinary people want safety and stability. inconvenience for businesses versus individual insecurity – a weighing of relative discomforts. New sources of grievance are overlaid on older ones, like class, and left permanently unaddressed because policymakers are distracted by more colourful cultural interest groups.

Maybe the worst discomfort of them all is ideological, as leftist demands seem unassuageable. Gatrell is a moderate, but even he indicates that whatever politicians do to help migrants will never be enough. Far to his left are ignorant and violent absolutists who in another age might have been Anabaptists, but now devote their passionate intensity to anarchism and ‘Antifa’.

When Vietnamese boat people were admitted to the UK on the basis that they were good workers, the author sees this as ‘barely disguised racism directed at Afro-Caribbean and South Asian migrants’. When the Dutch gave asylum to Christian Turks in the early 1980s, the offer ‘came with a message about the cultural backwardness and religious extremism of people of Islamic faith’. French universalism and secularism likewise amount to racism in his view, and French TV programmes for migrants are ‘patronising’ and ‘depressing’ – while a psychologist who wrote feelingly of migrants’ vulnerability was ‘blaming the victims’.

That’s just the beginning of Gatrell’s displays of concern over what might be called microaggressions towards the migrants. When Russians complimented Chechens on their command of Russian, it ‘concealed more than a hint of menace’. The Italian Mare Nostrum operation to pick up Mediterranean migrants was ‘a reference to Mussolini’s grand vision of Italian supremacy’. A monument to Albanians sunk by the Italian navy in 1997 failed to

include any discussion about how the migrants lost their lives…there was not even a plaque to explain why it was there and what it stood for, let alone any indication of the names of the people who drowned.

Leftist film-makers ‘appropriated migrants’ experiences’. Travel writer Bruce Chatwin was guilty of ‘exotic depictions’ even while writing movingly about anti-Algerian racism. When a German undercover journalist passed himself off as a Turkish job applicant to expose German racism, he

perpetuated a stereotype about ill-educated and slow-witted Turks and of reinforcing the view that guest workers were passive victims.

The author, humanely sensitive to migrant feelings, is more dismissive of European concerns. Europeans have generally peacefully accepted the dwindling of their status, but for him, anti-immigration voices are an angry ‘brigade’. He criticises white ‘imaginary ethnic homogeneity’ – forgetting that nations, like individuals, exist partly in the imagination. He condemns an Austrian restaurateur for feeling ‘scared’ by the 2015 migration surge that dashed by her front door. He scorns a Greek journalist who said Muslims on the island of Chios could constitute a fifth column, or be used by Turkey as a pretext to invade (as had happened in Cyprus in 1974). He blames EU governments for discouraging sick immigrants – for externalising guilt by externalising border control to non-European governments or agencies – and for people-smuggling by limiting legal migration.

He doesn’t mention free speech. He puts ‘threatened’ in inverted commas when discussing indigenous populations, even though objectively host communities may lose as much as, or more than, they may gain from immigration. He also places scare-quotes around ‘burden’, and even ‘national’ (although of course a logical conclusion of mass migration is to invalidate all identities). Angela Merkel gets rare praise for her supposedly pragmatic 2015 comment about Syrian refugees, ‘We’ll manage’. But can ‘we’? And, after a while, who are ‘we’ anyway?

Oddly for an economist, he shows little interest in economic models that prioritise national workers over migrant workers, or the effects of technological innovation, or what happens to Third World countries that lose their best to the West. Nor are there any policy suggestions. Having opened with a metaphor about boats, he closes with one about bridges – along the way never having considered another metaphor for civilization-building, that of the wall.

Without migration, he concludes at last, Europe would be ‘greatly diminished’. Might it not just have been different? It all feels unsatisfactorily inconclusive – but unsettling is unfinished business, after all.

Republished from the December 2019 issue of Chronicles: The Magazine of American Culture. All rights reserved by the Charlemagne Institute

 

 

Pet projects

The Animal’s Companion – People and their Pets – a 26,000-Year-Old History

Jacky Colliss Harvey, London: Atlantic Books, 2019

The author starts this ambitious book with a redhaired man and his red setter wearing matching bandanas and sunglasses, who made her wonder why so many of us feel so impelled to allow unutterably alien animals live at our hearths, and lodge in our hearts. She then revivifies her girlhood’s ginger toms, bantams, guinea pigs, rabbits, voles, and a wolfhound named Fergus, whose basso profundo growl made bearable the blackest Suffolk nights. We move onto the anonymous 9th century poet-monk who immortalized his cat Pangur Bán, Anne Boleyn’s dog Purkoy, Samuel Pepys’ cat Gyb, Dr. Johnson’s cat Hodge, William Cowper’s hares, and many others. Inevitably, we think about our own companion animals – for me, spaniels, like the one that tried to follow King Charles to the scaffold, and terriers, like the one that charges across this book’s cover. So ensues an engaging, insightful consideration of how anthropomorphism, cruelty, egocentrism, empathy, realism and sentimentality have blended and blurred across centuries – teaching us a vast amount about animals, and even more about ourselves.

One of our oldest ideals is being able to talk to animals, as in Eden, although few of these mythic conversations ended as badly as Eve’s. Some cults adored animals; even animal sacrifice can be seen as a kind of communion. Not all Christians admired all Creation, or were sure where boundaries lay; there were medieval trials of ‘evil’ pigs, rats and weevils. A 15th century Dutch manuscript shows stains of feline urine, and the enraged monk’s caricature of the culprit and malediction against all cats. Puritans regarded animistic and Edenic ideals as near-Satanic, worried over-familiar pets might shade into witches’ familiars – although probably even the severest Puritans had four-legged ‘family’.

‘Pet’, a term from the Scottish-English borders, was probably first applied to lambs, but can encompass any animal if its ‘owner’ esteems it. Romans adopted locusts, hares, dolphins and moray eels. (The ‘crazy cat-lady’ has been a moralising motif since the time of Augustus.) Excavations at Navan Fort unearthed an Iron Age Barbary Ape. An eighth century Irish legal code listed badgers, cranes, otters, ravens, rooks and squirrels as pets for whom owners were responsible. Castile’s King Alfonso X commissioned a song of thanks to the Virgin when his weasel escaped death. More recently, people have made pets of cockroaches, pixels, even rocks.

‘Pet’ connotes amusement, companionship, ‘cuteness’, dependency, and smallness (and being pampered, and spoiled). Even confined to the ovine, the term is complicated. ‘Baa-baa black sheep’ is a cipher, whereas ‘Mary’s little lamb’ is a pet – because of the love felt by the girl for that lamb which had singled her out to follow. Even so, Mary’s pet’s outlook is uncertain. The hard histories of up-countries teem with lambs taken down tenderly from wintry hillsides to be hand-fed – to be slaughtered later, when the snow-fleeced frisker has become a valuable commodity.

The person-pet dynamic has always been pragmatic as well as psychological. We cannot know what relationship existed between the boy and the proto-dog who 26,000 years ago dared the totemic Chauvet cave, but the boy was probably glad of the company in case of cave-bears, as the author was grateful for Fergus in spectre-stalked Suffolk. Celtic law books recommended small dogs guard mothers-to-be against fairies, and gave a cat the same value as three cows if proficient at mousing and purring, and one-and-a-half cows just for purring. 1413’s The Master of Game suggested Nosewise, Clench and Holdfast as hortatory hound-names, to bring luck to the huntsman, and the 1486 Boke of St Albans ‘small ladyes poppes’ to ‘bere away the flees’.

We have forced horses onto chevaux de frise, consigned them to coal-pits, eaten them – and treated them better than we treat ourselves. The author uses a dragoon officer’s relationship with his charger as a parable of perennial love – the horse’s gravestone in a Surrey field almost the only trace of his rider’s aristocratic estate. Self-styled dog-lovers select breeds for appearance rather than health. White mice are toyed with, brown ones trapped. Technicians treat lab rats differently once they have been assigned names. Canaries were talked to – and jailed – and taken down mines to asphyxiate. ‘The cage is its native element’, thought a benevolent, blockheaded Boys’ Own editor.

Descartes notoriously viewed animals as automata, but his unfeeling ‘bête-machine’ was disbelieved in even by his contemporaries, because closeness to animals is intrinsically enlightening. Unarticulated ideas can be communicated by unspeaking animals, their exciting arrivals and disconsolate departures teaching children about duty, love, sex and death – lessons they can and do project onto people. As a fledgling ideology of animal liberation starts a long flight towards legislation, the next target is pet ownership itself. But the truth is we will always need animals because, in the words of Walt Whitman, ‘They bring me tokens of myself’.

The review first appeared in the Irish Times, and is reproduced with permission

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