On the 22nd September 1692, the last executions for witchcraft were enacted in the USA. These terrifying punishments were a consequence of the hysteria and paranoia that had gripped the populace for that entire year. The population had experienced misfortune on an unprecedented scale and they needed to find scapegoats.
These were frontier people who sought religious and economic freedom after suffering prejudice and penury in Europe. They were deeply pious but prone to their own prejudices, particularly directed against women and especially women with intelligence and independent spirits of their own.
Throughout history women have been the focus of awe. Men feared the power of female sexuality as well as enjoying the allure of it. This is the root of the myth that a mighty woman has the feat for destruction. Eve had the wiles to convince Adam to eat the Forbidden Fruit. If Eve had not convinced Adam then human beings would not have acquired the knowledge to develop and we would have lived like the animals. However Eve also made man self-conscious and ashamed of his own physical desires.
In classical myth the most alluring figures are female, they have the power to inspire poets but also the potential to confuse, to blind and to maim. Mediaeval Europe had absorbed the Biblical and classical perception of women. This led to the first recorded examples of literal “witch hunts”, where women could face arrest for practising sorcery or witchcraft. A proportion of these women were not sorcerers or witches but simply clever and capable, often with highly sought after skills in medicine.
The greatest male writers of the twentieth century channelled their awe, fear and desire for female sexual energy and intelligence into their work. D.H Lawrence built his entire literary career upon fierce and inspiring women, a mirror of his own life as a young man surrounded by strong women. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes, though entirely different in terms of poetic style, were driven by the energy of the women in their lives.
It is vital that when we consider the “witch” as an aspect of feminine sexuality we should remember that it is a powerful symbol in our culture and history.
On the 6th September 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales was laid to rest at her ancestral home of Althorp. After the funeral her short and troubled life was scrutinised by commentators who perceived that her passing also symbolised the death of the old England. However this perception is flawed because this version of England will always exist in the fond memories of the nation, in spite of all of the social and political upheavals.
In 1981 Lady Diana Spencer was betrothed to the Prince of Wales. The engagement between an aristocrat’s daughter and the heir to the throne was arranged to ensure that any future heirs would have the necessary bloodline. This arranged marriage seemed anachronistic even then, a reminder of an unenlightened and feudal social order.
However English people are especially prone to nostalgia, and cling to the past when other nations sweep those concerns to the side in anticipation for the future. Foreigners are particularly bemused by our obsession with relics and antiques, when in other cultures anything old is discarded in favour of the new as there is more use for those things.
Similarly the obsession with old families with inherited wealth is part of this compulsion to hang on to the old ways. Dynastic politics is a sublimation of ancient myth, so memorably evoked at the Royal Wedding when the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of it as a fairy tale.
The Spencer family had lived at the vast Althorp Estate since the fifteenth century. The wealth that they accumulated was a consequence of the lucrative wool industry. Other landowning families owed an immense debt to sheep. There seems to be a great irony that the grandeur of their houses derives from something as lowly as a humble animal.
In Evelyn Waugh`s 1945 novel “Brideshead Revisited”, the wealth of the aristocratic Marchmain family was solely down to sheep. In a poignant chapter Lord Marchmain is dying and he speaks wistfully of “the fat days, the days of wool-shearing and the wide corn lands, the days of growth and building, when the marshes were drained and the waste land brought under the plough, when one built the house, his son added the dome, his son spread the wings and dammed the river”.
Coincidentally during the winter of 1981 ITV adapted “Brideshead Revisited”. The opening scene shows an officer stationed at the crumbling Brideshead estate in the midst of the Second World War. Immediately the officer remembers that he had a close friendship with Lord Marchmain`s son at Oxford. The memory is intoxicating and the contrast between the dark destructive forces of war and the innocence of a wide eyed and impressionable young man in the heady days of the twenties is stark and unsettling. The jaded and demoralised Captain then falls into a reverie about his colourful and eventful youth.
The narrative is an elegy for a lost world, a world that changed irrevocably after the Second World War. England emerged from the wreckage physically altered but spiritually the nation was the same, the clamour for the old remained. Even in the midst of the 1980s recession the fervent need for fairy tales had not diminished. It might appear nonsensical and romantic to show reverence for old institutions but it is a part of our culture and civilisation.
(Photograph depicts Todmorden, West Yorkshire. Photograph by Fay Godwin from Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes)
On the 2nd of September 1973 the English author and Anglo-Saxon scholar J.R.R Tolkein died. His fiction is often classified alongside other “fantasy” writers but this is unfair and demeaning to his true legacy and unique skill as a storyteller and myth maker.
He had a parallel career as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford. His literary and academic life was dedicated to the revival of the ancient languages, legends and lore of England. However this was not merely an idle pastime, it was a serious endeavour of his, shaped by his devout Catholic faith and the trauma he experienced in the trenches of the First World War.
Tolkein was a veteran of the Somme and witnessed death and destruction on an almost industrial scale. He was like many young survivors, seeking meaning and purpose after a battle that defied comprehension and reason. He began an imaginary quest into the world of old England. His vision was mystic, focussing upon the pre-industrial environs of Birmingham where he spent most of his childhood. Birmingham used to be part of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. These ancient kingdoms had a moral and spiritual quality to them that was lost in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. After this cataclysmic event the country was on a mindless and soulless trajectory for progression at the expense of nature and humanity.
Myth, for Tolkein, had an essential truth. The ancient myth that trees were once animated and capable of walking amongst us is not just a supernatural vision. This myth is a profound metaphor, a way of describing the spiritual connection between the English people and the trees that surround them. It is also a pertinent allusion to the roots of the nation.
(Image- Big Belly Oak, situated in Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. This is reportedly the oldest tree in England as it is believed to be 1100 years old).
Tolkein also reminded us that our traditions and stories need to be preserved for future generations. Every nation has its own foundation myths and England is no exception, we often speak of our pride in industrial innovation but we also need to honour the lives and achievements of our ancestors living before mechanisation.
The pernicious and toxic debate about gender is yet another disturbing feature of this postmodern age. We have abandoned civil discourse and as a consequence the atmosphere has worsened. Anger has supplanted openness and curiosity and those who advocate for change have instead turned more shrill, no-one seems to yield from their ideology or listen to a more moderate or considered argument.
Gender is the concept that human beings are not confined by their biological sex and that their role and value in society is culturally determined. Traditional cultures have strict rules about men and women, men are the sole providers and women are entirely responsible for the home and the family. However in more modern societies the gender roles are much looser, as women are no longer financially dependent upon men and domestic arrangements have become much more democratic.
The difficulty that we now face is complex, but chiefly the confusion between gender and sex dominates. Sex is the purely biological function of men and women and entirely separate from gender which is cultural. Both men and women have suffered in cultures where there are gender stereotypes, it has led to a sense of dehumanisation. Men who possess more caring, thoughtful and nurturing characteristics have suffered the same fate as women with supposedly more masculine traits. In 14th century Europe the most influential women were consecrated to God as nuns. They were respected owing to their superior levels of education and the power that they wielded in the wider culture.
The nuns based at the abbeys of Whitby and Hartlepool worked devotedly within the realms of language, science, history and theology. The writing that emerged from these centres of learning vastly enriched the intellectual sphere, as there was a distinctly female sensibility infusing the work.
In Pagan societies women were not as valued for their unique insights because the culture was much more primitive and solely motivated by survival. Men were brutish and lustful, women were only receptacles to relieve men from their urges, and then to bring new lives into the tribe.
However as civilisations have evolved the quest for meaning beyond our basic existence has become much more important. Women desired dignity and respect and men sought greater tranquillity and equanimity rather than succumb to mindless violence and hostility. Our common humanity should transcend our sexualities.
On the 12th August 1774 the poet Robert Southey was born. He was a contemporary of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and was associated with the Romantic movement. The Romantic poets were chiefly known for their emphasis upon the virtue of sentiment but they were also driven by the necessity to liberate the individual human spirit from oppressive convention.
Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially enthused by the radical political movements that were engulfing continental Europe. Wordsworth was sufficiently inspired to visit France in 1791 after reading about the revolution. Coleridge and Southey were radicalised at University. This atmosphere of social tumult had begun to filter through the gilded halls of academia, and it shaped the literature that they created.
Coleridge and Southey collaborated on a project which later became a play called “The Fall of Robespierre”. Robespierre was portrayed as the proud, defiant leader of a vanguard that toppled the despots and the tyrants of the ancien regime. However their idealistic vision was soon tarnished by the harsh realities of a country torn from its roots, as France descended into chaos and terror.
The new French Republic cleansed the supposed superstitions of the past in the most callous and deadly way possible, under the unforgiving blade of the guillotine. Wordsworth believed that he could start a new life in France. He had high hopes for his burgeoning relationship with Annette Vallon and their daughter but the situation ultimately became too dangerous and he was forced to return home and leave both of them behind.
Wordsworth`s contemporaries also found themselves disillusioned by revolutionary politics and began to appreciate the traditions and institutions of England. Southey became the most conservative writer out of all three as his poetry echoes the maxim so memorably uttered by Edmund Burke that there is an unspoken pact between the people of the past, present and future.
There is an inherent conservatism within Romantic poetry. The poems immortalise the beauty of the past and impress upon us the value of preserving it for future generations. The poems also reflect a distinctly English sensibility, a sensibility made much more potent after the foment of the French Revolution.
However this country maintained a level of stability that contrasted starkly with the rest of Europe. In the early twentieth century, the German historian Otto Hintze made the wry observation that the English were a set of living fossils dependent upon an ancient feudal system that had largely vanished on the continent.
Southey lived the remainder of his life on a £300 a year pension, a gift from the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel who was a long admirer of his work. He died in 1843.
Louis-Ferdinand Celine was the notorious French writer with a dark and shady association with the Vichy regime. In 1944 he fled to Germany leaving behind a collection of correspondence, subsequently seized by the French resistance. None of this was ever made public until August 2021 when a left-wing journalist published Celine`s “lost” papers, which also included an unfinished manuscript of a novel.
Jean-Pierre Thibaudat was the journalist responsible for the release. Thibaudat, who writes for Liberation magazine was handed the papers in 2006, but only decided to print them after the death of Celine`s widow. However the Celine estate took legal action against him, accusing him of receiving stolen goods. The French people, once again have been forced to confront one of the most sensitive aspects to their nation’s history and the role that their most esteemed literary figures played during that time.
Celine`s 1932 novel, “Journey to the End of the Night” was a masterpiece, and it was awarded the Prix Renaudot, a top French literary prize. It was based on the author’s experience of World War One and it is a brilliant evocation of the futility and waste associated with that conflict. The prose is spare and bleak, revealing the deep seated misanthropy of the narrator and by implication, the author.
Celine`s World War Two associations seem incongruous in the light of his previous experience fighting the Germans. As the letters have proven, he was a collaborator with the Nazis and shared their extreme philosophy, including a distasteful antipathy of Jewish people. Nonetheless his morbid, nihilistic fiction filled with antiheroes is unsurpassed.
A distinction really needs to be drawn between Celine and the other major literary figure associated with Vichy France, Charles Maurras. While Maurras was motivated by a genuine fear of Soviet influence and the necessity to maintain the French nation, Celine truly believed in Hitler`s notions of cleansing humanity by eliminating the “undesirable” elements within it.
Hitler had distorted European history and folklore to promote his prophecy and it is important to point this out. Maurras felt a real nostalgia for pre-revolutionary France, especially its Catholic heritage and his writings reveal a profound sense of affection for a distinct French culture. Maurras romanticised France, Celine only sought to destroy it.
The Celine papers are vital historical documents. It is really important that all of the conversations surrounding right and left wing politics should be aired.
(Photograph taken from a psychology conference held at Clark University, Massachusetts in 1909, the attendees depicted are Abraham Brill, Stanley Hall, Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi, Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud).
Human existence is unique in nature, as a species we have evolved from brutish ape to a sophisticated creature of superior intelligence. However the individual human mind is unparalleled in the animal kingdom, it almost defies scientific explanation. The diversity of human experience is infinite and this has perplexed the greatest thinkers of the 20th century and this in turn created a schism between theologians and scientists which remains particularly pertinent even today, in the 21st century.
Theologians argue that man rebelled against the creator of heaven and earth and the problems that continually afflict the people on earth, war, starvation etc are a consequence of this arrogance and rebellion. Theologians believe that in spite of man`s innate free will he was also made to seek meaning to his existence, and that only a higher being has the answers. Scientists are unconvinced by theology and counter it with a purely material explanation of the vicissitudes of human life on earth.
Unfortunately there are flaws in the purely materialist theory of man, it suggests that all human behaviours are predictable when obviously this is untrue because unlike other animals the powerful instinct to just survive and reproduce has weakened, and it also infers that our actions are entirely cold and functional as if we were machines.
The scientific rejection of religion has almost become a dogma in itself. This seems to be a paradox as science is ultimately supposed to be an evolving set of theories which develop through rigorous inquiry. Clearly it is impossible to live in the modern world as an impassive observer. Robert Musil was acutely aware of this when he wrote his lengthy masterpiece “The Man Without Qualities”. This was a novel written during the Imperial decline of Austria, when the world was on the brink of the First World War and the grandeur of old civilisations appeared to be losing their lustre.
The main protagonist, Ulrich, is also the eponymous “man without qualities”. He has very little personality, lives his life in a measured and pragmatic way and cares little for sentimental affectations. He is a self proclaimed intellectual but seems snobbish, rude and entitled. Yet he thrives in Viennese society. In contrast another character, Moosbrugger, is a violent rapist and psychopath who has survived through manipulation and deviousness. He is considered an aberration but in some circles of polite society there are calls for some leniency and sympathy for his predicament.
The naive sympathisers look at Moosbrugger as a victim of an unequal society, and are vehement in their belief that if society became kinder and fairer then there would be no crime. Other commentators on the case are equally vehement in their belief that deviants like Moosbrugger should be hanged to protect society. These comments are just as naive, as these criminals possess such low intelligence that they cannot understand that their actions are wrong. Patently death is no deterrent for the pitiful, pathetic and brutish who will always live among us, and no state intervention can force people to become kind and generous.
The problem facing us now is that material explanations for the most aberrant human behaviours are not sufficient. Some human beings are genuinely disturbed and need chemical and social interventions, but others are not, they are simply wicked. It is facile to believe that virtue can be artificially moulded by mortal men, it can only be inspired by a higher consciousness that is beyond us.
The “Conservative” Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued his resignation just a few days ago. His exit sparked an entire discussion about the state of politics in a modern nation like the United Kingdom. However this discussion also uncovered the widespread ignorance of the British populace, who are completely oblivious of the history of the Tories and the Conservative Party.
It is particularly shocking and saddening that people assume that “Tory” and “Conservative” are synonymous when they actually represent two separate but politically similar schools of thought. It is disturbing, and a sinister portent of events to come. Eventually people will have no connection to the culture and heritage of this country, and there will be no understanding or urgency to save it from the ruins.
However the ruination of British history and culture started in the late sixties when the spiteful, ungrateful children of the War generation decided to denigrate and expunge everything from Britain`s past. Their puerile attempts at revolution have been successful, not through deaths and purges, but through the mass poisoning of young minds within the education system. Since the seventies schoolchildren have been fed an entirely false narrative and inculcated with a Walt Disney version of history where Britain is, and always has been a villain in the world.
This asinine world view has been swallowed, and regurgitated since then without any serious attempt to challenge this grotesque over simplification. Consequently for the past few decades British people have become the most ill educated and uncultured people in Europe, as well as being one of the worst countries for alcohol and drug dependency. This is not just a coincidence, it is the result of a deep and enduring sense of demoralisation.
The political heirs of the revolutionaries call themselves progressives and they are convinced that their attempts to divest the people of any notion of British pride are entirely correct. At the other end of the scale an opportunist like Boris Johnson has managed to infiltrate the British Conservative Party and destroy the political message and the people in the process.
The Conservative writer Russell Kirk recognised that the Libertarian philosophy that Johnson and his ilk currently espouse was a betrayal of Conservatism. He said rather scathingly that they “bear no authority, temporal or spiritual, and they do not venerate ancient beliefs and customs, or the natural world, or their country, or the immortal spark in their fellow men”.
Kirk wrote eloquent pieces of philosophy as well as a series of pulp novels in the style of historical fiction. These novels are witty and clever, they are almost metafictions satirising pompous authors like Hemingway but at the same time recreating comic book heroes from the Victorian age. One recurring character, Mandred Arcane is obviously a caricature of a Victorian imperialist. The supporting cast of subjugated people are also a collection of cultural stereotypes.
There is no nuance or subtlety in Arcane, he is crude and self absorbed and rather familiar. In the 2019 General Election the Boris led Conservative Party was the only alternative to the vapid pieties professed by Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. The Labour manifesto even proposed a “National Education Service” with a particularly trite emphasis on British colonialism. If Corbyn had been successful then the indoctrination of British schoolchildren would have been complete, and yet more brutalised clones would be churned out by state schooling.
It is useful to provide some correct historical context to counter the terrible lies propagated by Labour. The Tory Party was established during the exclusion crisis of 1679. They had a similar ideology to the right wing traditionalists of pre revolutionary France, who desired the continuity and tradition of monarchy.
Throughout the eighteenth century the cultural impact of the Tory party was immense, it spawned witty writers and poets like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Pope and Swift had a great reverence for institutions and the traditional, including religion and loathed the emphasis of science as the foundation of all great works. Such an emphasis, they argued, only leads to dullness of the mind.
The philosophy of the original Tory Party was growing increasingly unfashionable as Britain entered the nineteenth century. Wealth was not solely inherited as the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution meant that a new mercantile class was emerging and needed political representation.
In 1834 the Conservative Party was established by Robert Peel. Peel founded the party on the basis of conserving the traditions of British culture to provide social stability. It was originally a non ideological political movement that sought to preserve monarchy, the established Church and the rule of law. The policies enacted by the Conservatives were designed to be pragmatic rather than radical or revolutionary.
British Conservatism has always been a popular creed in this country because it respects and protects tradition and history, unlike Labour which has sought to subvert and distort it in the most destructive way. T.S Eliot was the most prominent poet to express the British Conservative worldview. In “Little Gidding” he writes,
“A people without history is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light falls
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England”.
Unfortunately those radicals from the sixties that infested all of the institutions of this country have promoted concepts that are alien to a large proportion of the population. Secularism and the liberty to live without a moral or social conscience have become part of mainstream modern discourse. Consequently this country has become atomised and paganistic in its pursuits. The new Conservative Prime Minister needs to remember the original purpose of the party and rescue this country from oblivion.
On the 8th July 1822 the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died. At the time of his death he was living in permanent exile in Italy, as a consequence of a series of scandals. He drowned in a boating accident aged just 29 years old. The devastating loss of such a young, promising and dynamic poet seemed unjust as it occurred in the wake of the death of another young poet John Keats.
Shelley dedicated his poem “Adonais” to Keats` memory. It is a beautiful piece of verse in the elegiac tradition. Although Elegy as a form of writing was inherited from the Greek and Roman literary traditions, the spirit of memorialising has always been integral to English culture and an innate part of us as a people.
Our ancestors were hardy people who endured sickness and death and a great deal of inclement weather. In this country we understood and reconciled ourselves to the fact that for most of the year it was cold and dark. This experience has imbued our psyche and inspired a distinctly melancholic aspect.
However the earliest expression of this is in a very old Anglo-Saxon word called “dustsceawung” which means “the contemplation of dust”. It is a word that is unique to our culture, similar to “melancholy” which is of Greek derivation but it is in fact a purely Anglo concept of the inevitability of loss. England is an island nation and the isolation and feelings of foreboding engendered by the sea have been the source of the greatest lamentations in literature.
The anonymous author of “The Wanderer” understood this, as a man meditating on solitude while facing the ceaseless seas. Another poem “The Seafarer” also mines the same seam, the eponymous hero contemplates his life spent at sea and opines that he is alone but that he must endure.
Both poems were preserved in a volume entitled the “Exeter Book” , a manuscript dating back to the tenth century. It is the oldest book of Anglo-Saxon literature which survived the Norman Conquest when attempts to destroy the language and culture of the English people were stepped up in earnest.
However the English culture has survived in spite of the multiple incursions from outside its shores. William Shakespeare is revered all over the world owing to his profound understanding of loss, evinced so eloquently in “Ariel`s Song” a lamentation from his play “The Tempest” . It is therefore apt that Shelley`s grave bears this as an inscription, that,
Post war Hull was a bleak and forbidding place. It was still recovering from the trauma of the Blitz, as it was the second most bombed city in England. Officially Kingston-upon-Hull was a thriving port city and the centre of the fishing industry, but for most people the reality was different. Daily existence was harsh, life for many was brutal and short. It became one of the most violent places in the country, an indirect consequence of the alcohol dependency that afflicted a huge proportion of the population after the war years.
This was the unlikely location for a collective of enterprising art students, attracted by low rents and cheap living costs. However these were not the only factors that inspired them, there was an undercurrent brewing. It was barely perceptible at first, but there was a growing clamour for artistic revitalisation in a city scarred by the blight of nihilistic violence.
In 1969 COUM Transmissions was established. It chiefly consisted of Hull native Christine Newby and her partner Neil Megson, who originally hailed from Solihull but briefly attended Hull University. However they adopted artistic pseudonyms to represent their aesthetic and philosophical vision. Newby was “Cosey Fanni Tutti” , a hybrid of a childhood nickname and pun on the Mozart opera of the same name. Megson called himself “Genesis P-Orridge” to reflect upon the creation of the world and to acknowledge his limited diet, porridge oats were cheap, but filling and both were reliant on this staple food during a lean period. COUM expanded to include other like minded individuals who were committed to the vision.
Newby was a bright young woman from a humble background who excelled at art at school, but was hampered in her ambitions by wider Hull society which saw little value in creative work. She was fortunate that her teachers encouraged her talent, but the prevailing attitude about the role of women in a predominantly working class community was not so favourable.
Megson, in contrast, was born into a privileged family, and attended Solihull School. He was also exceptionally bright and creative. However his burgeoning intellectual and artistic curiosity frequently clashed with the staid figures of authority at school and the more genteel aspects of wider Solihull society.
Megson was an outsider, a deep thinker and natural rebel. He only had two close friends at school as they shared the same desire to question everything. Together they organised “happenings” at various locations across Solihull. The bemused locals and press were unsure of the motives of these strange teenage boys and even castigated these events as sinister satanic rituals. Megson applied to the University of Hull as he loathed the atmosphere of privilege and elitism that he had grown up in.
Whilst at the University, Megson developed a prodigious talent for poetry and won an award judged by the resident librarian Philip Larkin. However he was becoming rapidly disillusioned by academic life and felt stifled, dropping out after a year. When Newby met Megson there was an instant understanding between them, both were misunderstood by conventional society and they believed that it was their mission to challenge these conventions.
COUM Transmissions was a project of performance art and music and centred on contentious themes like sexuality and violence. The artistic community in Hull championed their work, as they had a real insight into the message that was being portrayed. However the rest of Hull was less than understanding and they faced constant harassment, and the threat of arrest.
The Hull performances were marred by violent elements in the crowd, and the prejudice and ignorance of the authorities who could not understand the difference between theatrical presentation of deviancy and the artists enacting the scenes. Eventually the collective had to move to London so that their artistic vision could evolve. Intelligent, imaginative people were appreciative of their work and were grateful that difficult conversations could be opened up through the medium of art.
However the narrow minded philistine element of British society condemned them, with one MP famously accusing them of being “wreckers of civilisation”. This phrase was subsequently adopted for another show. Megson and Newby had a tempestuous relationship, both personally and professionally, and they had prolonged periods of separation and reconciliation.
It was almost a fateful combination where two very sensitive, creative but fiercely ambitious people could not stand to live or work with each other. The eventual split was acrimonious, but was fruitful for Newby artistically. She began another artistic trajectory on sexuality, reflecting on the sexism that she experienced as a young female artist.
COUM was transgressive and shocking for its time, but a necessary counterpoint to a culture dominated by violence and sexual oppression.