We Must Dream Of The Promise

On the 25th November, 1970 Yukio Mishima died in a ritual suicide. Mishima was a renowned Japanese writer and actor. He was also a right-wing activist who proposed that Japan should remain uniquely and unapologetically Japanese and resist any foreign influence, especially from America.

In the West, any death from suicide is regarded as shameful and cowardly, and a clear signal that the deceased individual was too weak to live. However traditional Japanese culture maintains that suicide is ultimately brave and heroic, and anyone prepared to die in that way should command the highest respect.

Mishima`s dramatic exit from this world was an imitation of a Samurai warrior`s last stand. The Samurai were knights in ancient feudal Japan who enjoyed the patronage of the Shogun, the military rulers. Although Japan was officially ruled by an Emperor, his role was largely symbolic, all the main diktats were issued by the Shogunate.

There were absolutist and autocratic codes for everyone in society which covered dress and conduct. This was the way of life for every Japanese citizen for centuries.

However in the nineteenth century western explorers attempted to impose modern systems, but they were met with resistance. The Portuguese were welcomed and briefly tolerated when they introduced new techniques in gun manufacture but their presence became intolerable when attempts were made to convert the Japanese to Christianity.

The resistance against this became increasingly violent, Christians were tortured by various means, some were forced into boiling hot springs, others were plunged into vats of excrement or crucified.

However this did not prevent any further European exploration, but they were not wanted, Dutch traders arrived in the intervening years but they were exiled on a barren island. Eventually the Shogunate issued an order that no overseas trade should take place and every Japanese citizen was to remain on home soil.

The regime was fearful that the precious identity of Japan would disappear, any foreign ship attempting to enter Japan would have to confront thousands of armed Samurai.

This uncompromising vision of Japan’s golden age, evinced through Mishima`s stark prose has attracted praise and revulsion in equal measures, even in the western world which has divested itself of its own proud traditions. Admiration for ancient Asian traditions is a consequence of European fragility.

This seemed apparent nearly a hundred years ago, when the right-wing Italian philosopher Julius Evola began his writing career. He argued that tradition was integral to humanity’s survival and quoted ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts to back his arguments. However, like Mishima, his literary reputation has been overshadowed by his brief involvement with far-right politics.

It is now fashionable to decry writers who are deemed beyond the pale, only by virtue of holding supposedly unpalatable views in a more modern and enlightened age. Such thinking detracts from the power of literature to provoke and question.

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Merrie Land

On the 17th November 1558 Queen Elizabeth I ascended the throne. Her ascension heralded a renewed English Protestant culture, which had been deliberately and maliciously suppressed and persecuted by her predecessor, Queen Mary. The Elizabethan age was revered and renowned as a time of stability and calm. This was a consequence of her 44 year reign and the religious homogeneity of the country’s population.

The literature of the Elizabethan era was distinct, it was inspired by the personality and character of Elizabeth herself. She was regarded as implacable and even mysterious. Her dogged refusal to marry her most ardent suitors lended her this air of mystery and she became known as the “Virgin Queen”.

The poet Edmund Spenser was inspired to write “The Faerie Queene” as a tribute to her. He reimagined her as “Gloriana”, a mythical figure embodying Protestant virtues. However after Elizabeth’s death the country lost confidence in itself and became unsure of its identity and purpose in a rapidly fractious and changing world.

Sir Walter Scott was sufficiently in awe of the unmistakable power of Elizabeth as Queen, so much so that he wrote an homage to her in the form of a novel “Kenilworth”. This was a courtly drama reimagined for the Regency age. The book is an example of a very British nostalgia for the rule of Gloriana. One passage reads,

“This aching of the heart, this languishing after a shadow which has lost all the gaiety of its colouring, this dwelling on the remembrance of a dream from which we have been roughly awakened”.

The subsequent reign of Stuart Kings could not compete with the grandeur left by Elizabeth. Her legacy was profound and enduring. The most notorious of the Stuarts, King Charles I could be seen as vain and indulgent, and a traitor. His Catholic sympathies garnered praise and revulsion in equal measures and led to the English Civil War.

(Photograph is of a salt cellar, allegedly made from a vertebrae of King Charles I)

KIng Charles I was arrogant to assume divine power, and his hubris ultimately led to his execution. It is clear that the last Tudor Queen has a greater hold over our imaginations than any other Monarch in our long history.

Heretics and Hypocrites

(Photograph depicts young Russian protestors from the Eurasian Youth Union, taken in 2006).

This Saturday the people of Lewes, East Sussex converge for their annual bonfire party. The Lewes celebration is the biggest and most extravagant bonfire night in the country. It commemorates the foiled Guy Fawkes plot and honours the memory of the Lewes martyrs, seventeen Protestants who were tortured and killed for their beliefs during the reign of Queen Mary.

The Lewes festivities are part of a local tradition, and attract both fame and infamy nationally. The costumes and displays are deliberately designed to be provocative, lampooning the excesses of the historical popes and other pious leaders. Clearly those who spoke out at the time knew that the most devious used their religious authority to cloak their own immorality. They were prepared to die defending their convictions.

It is obvious that the intention behind this is to mock and pillory figures of power rather than the devout believers. Every year a notorious establishment figure is made into a “Guy” to be burned on the bonfire. Historical religious persecution is casually dismissed as a distant era of primitivism and superstition, but the modern age has not moved on in terms of accepting others who profess a different opinion to the prevailing conventions or sensitivities.

The fate that afflicted those individuals who questioned the authority of the Catholic Church was gruesome, but the modern punishment of cancellation is much more insidious on a psychological level, and even more damaging than the physical tortures of sixteenth century inquisitors.

Until very recently every school child in Britain was implored to recite the rhyme to “Remember remember the 5th of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”. This is not an attack on religious difference, but a reminder that a fanatical terrorist almost succeeded in destroying freedom and democracy in this country and this included freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.

It is vital to point out that if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded, then the United Kingdom would have become a theocracy and every citizen would be controlled through a combination of intimidation and violence to adhere to the state religion. No-one would be free to question, or to highlight any double standard or hypocrisy, these are things that we now take for granted.

Unfortunately a new kind of heresy is being suggested, and it is promulgated from a powerful and influential class of people. Most people are not allied to this extreme cause but are too afraid to voice dissent, lest they lose their jobs or their friends. They are also subject to mockery, sarcasm and vulgarity rather than reasoned discussion. This is a modern kind of inquisition and it should be recognised as another form of torture. No-one should be subject to this kind of barbarism in 2022.

Walking Through Fire

(Drawing by Fifa Finnsdottir, from “The Trolls in the Knolls”, a collection of Icelandic folklore).

On October 27th 1955, the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Laxness’ work helped to draw the world’s attention to this most mysterious and nebulous country. Iceland was founded in the ninth century by Viking chieftains from Norway and Denmark, who then took slaves from Ireland to build a civilisation. Most Icelandic people are the descendants of Irish slaves, and the Icelandic language is closer to ancient Gaelic than either Norwegian or Danish.

Laxness was acutely aware of Iceland`s long struggle for self determination and was a committed Icelandic nationalist. Until 1944 it remained under Danish control, in spite of its unique culture and language. However the path for nationhood was protracted and painful. Iceland was in an uneasy alliance with Denmark throughout the twentieth century, particularly during the Second World War and in its aftermath.

Iceland, like Denmark, was neutral at the outbreak of war. Germany invaded Denmark on the 9th April 1940, and the Danish powers declared that Iceland would control its own defence and foreign policies. However just a month later British forces launched an invasion on Icelandic soil, fearing that the Germans would make an incursion on the island. The Icelandic authorities were incensed at this violation of its neutrality. A year later American forces took over the defence of the island and did not leave until 1946. Three years later Iceland joined NATO but this was not popular with the civilian population and riots broke out.

This fractious period of political and social instability is the backdrop of Laxness` most famous work, “The Atom Station”. The narrator is Ugla, a young woman from the countryside sent to work for a prominent Icelandic politician in the capital city Reykjavik. She is at turns sardonic but at other times also acutely vulnerable. Her naivety is cruelly exploited both by the elite authorities and the left wing activists who populate the city`s cafes and bars at night.

Ugla is an unashamed romantic who clings to the mythology of Iceland’s ancient past. Her love of tradition clashes with the harsh realities of modernity, including the aforementioned “Atom Station”, an American funded defence post and also a glaring symbol of militarism, colonisation and globalisation. Ugla falls in love and becomes pregnant, but this does not spell disaster for her, it allows her to find hope and renewal, and a return to the land of her ancestors.

Laxness is a pertinent writer to return to at this present time, a time when progressivism is being challenged in the most horrific and vivid ways. More people are questioning whether modernisation, westernisation and globalisation are positive forces for good. Traditionalism, conservatism and nationalism are now being mooted as alternatives, despite their historically negative connotations. There is virtue in the past which remains unacknowledged.

Only Connect

On the 18th October 1910 the English author E.M Forster published “Howard`s End”. Ostensibly it is a novel about the preoccupations of two middle class families living in late Victorian England. However the philosophical themes that underpin the novel are much more profound than the surface narrative suggests. This book is much more than a peculiar curiosity from a distant era. In spite of its unfamiliar historical setting and unsympathetic characters, Forster`s prose allows us to relate to the people and their surroundings on a purely human level.

This tale has a greater resonance and meaning which is more pertinent to our contemporary existence and especially in the light of some very recent political events. “Howard`s End” is a melancholic reflection on the snobbery, xenophobia, materialism and the decline of the spiritual tradition in a modern, industrialised England. The central protagonists are an Anglo-German family called the Schlegels. Although they are wealthy and cultured, their German heritage becomes a constant barrier in society.

However the Schlegels are the classic example of insider-outsiders, their foreign origin allows them to develop a greater appreciation of the culture that they have absorbed. Unlike the “native” English, they are loath to criticise the history and culture and almost over compensate in their behaviours to prove that they belong.

Unfortunately German history is not well known in this country. It is perhaps a consequence of geographical distance, as an island nation we were insulated from the revolutions that burned through central Europe in 1848. At that time Germany was not a unitary nation but a collection of principalities ruled by dynastic families.

It was only during the time of Bismarck’s ascension that a purposeful aim for national unity was declared, alongside a greater ambition to extend the German Empire. In 1862 he delivered his “blood and iron” speech which helped crystallise the German stereotype in the English imagination. Even though Germany was the nation of Handel and Schiller, this caricature of the dictator- imperialist remained. Forster opines,

“England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries…what did it mean? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave worlds fleet accompanying her towards eternity?”

Forster also gives the reader a rare and privileged insight into the Schlegel siblings memories about their late father,

“If one classed him at all it would be the countryman of Hegel and Kant, as the idealist, inclined to be dreamy, whose imperialism was the imperialism of the air.”

Forster is keen to impress that the Schlegels are romantic sentimentalists who pine for the mountains of their ancestors. However as they are the inheritors of wealth they are isolated from the rest of society and it is this rare luxury that allows them to indulge in intellectual and artistic pursuits.

However the grubby business of money intrudes in the most disturbing and unsettling way with a near simultaneous encounter with the Wilcox family, and Leonard Bast. The Wilcox family amassed an immense fortune and property portfolio including the estate of “Howard`s End”. However they are also brutal materialists and philistines. Leonard Bast is a humble bank clerk but filled with artistic and intellectual aspiration, he longs to find his soul.

When these characters collide a cascade of misery unfolds, adultery, illegitimacy, death and prison. The only real element that is significant in its absence is love, the most simple form of human connection that eludes the entire cast.

Forster infers that this noticeable decay of feeling is the natural result of the loss of English spirituality, he despairs in the closing scenes,

“Why has not England a great mythology? … Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and fairies.”

An Edwardian novelist`s plea for connection may not be the most obvious allusion to draw in terms of the Brexit vote. However the shrill arguments that emanated from the Remainer side was a timely reminder that dull, shallow and literal people will never understand the moral, spiritual and emotional reasons behind the referendum.

The referendum itself was devised by insider-outsiders within the political world, all galvanised by a profound affection for the culture and history of this country. The first meeting was held at the Tate Britain gallery, the apex of British visual art, and a space where journalists, politicians and associated bureaucrats were conspicuous by their absence.

Three of the instigators were notable insider-outsiders, overcompensating as a consequence for their perceived lack of influence and connection to this country. Daniel Hannan was born in Peru and had first hand experience of communist dictatorship. Douglas Carswell spent most of his early life in Uganda as the son of a medical missionary. Boris Johnson was born in America to a colourful mixed heritage family with roots in Turkey and Belgium. They were all united behind a campaign to restore national sovereignty.

Clearly the base motives of an organisation that evolved from a Franco-German Iron and Steel agreement were of little benefit to the ordinary people of this country. It is naive to adhere to the notion of internationalism. It is a belief only shared by utilitarians and those who have never genuinely experienced how it feels to be on the margins of society, but who desperately want to belong to it.

The Universal Frame

(Picture-the ruins of the church of St Andrew, Covehithe, Suffolk).

The English people have always wrestled with their spiritual conscience and this has affected their outlook on life, for good and ill. It has also imbued the culture of the country in an indelible way. The ambiguous religious identity of England has been the chief source of strife and this has in turn led to misunderstanding and even malice.

However this struggle has formed the unique character of the Englishman, an often diffident and awkward person uncomfortable with either overt sentimentality or moral earnestness. The English are distinct, their religious traditions are vastly different from the vivid Catholic culture of Ireland or Spain, and the austere expressions of Protestantism in Scotland or Holland.

The religious wars that were inflicted upon the European people were solely based upon perceptions of power. It was basically an enormous power struggle between the higher supremacy of the Church versus the weaker status placed in government. The English Civil War was just another manifestation of a battle between two omnipotent and recalcitrant forces who believed that they had the spiritual authority over the nation.

When we look at this major historical event with our modern sensibilities we are horrified by the violent bigotry expressed from both sides, but seventeenth century England was in effect a different country inhabited by superstitious and primitive people. However we must not underestimate the impact of this War, it remains a conflict that is deeply embedded within our national psyche.

Many counties in England were scarred by the War, families were divided and massive losses of life ensued. In spite of the fact that England is a largely secular nation, the superstitions of our ancestors still rise to the surface in barely perceptible ways, often the Puritan sensibility emerges but at other times our affection for our older Catholic past becomes much more obvious.

The Victorians inherited a country that suffered the violent iconoclasm of Cromwell’s troops but had also enjoyed the artistic and cultural regeneration of the Restoration years. The nation was nominally “Protestant” but the Church itself was unsure of its role and identity in a society that was growing materially richer but spiritually poorer. Many prominent individuals were allied strongly with the moral certainty of the Roman Catholic Church and risked opprobrium for expressing the dogma that so many people believed caused societal oppression.

Sir Edward Elgar was one of the most influential English composers of this age, and also a devout Roman Catholic. He attracted controversy for adapting Cardinal Newman`s evocative and affecting poem “The Dream of Gerontius” to music. Ostensibly a prayer for God’s mercy from a dying man, it was widely interpreted as almost a propaganda piece for the Catholic Church and its unyielding dictum on mortality.

The Church of England had dispensed with many Catholic rituals, including the clergy’s role in administering “extreme unction” for the dying. Protestants believe that only God has the authority to forgive the sins of believers once they pass away, but Catholics place their ultimate loyalty to the Priest in the hours of death and must confess solely to him in order to secure their place in heaven.

The notion of ex cathedra is alien to most people brought up within the Protestant tradition and it is a confusing concept to grapple with, it seems pious and cold. However Newman and Elgar evoked the sublime beauty of the devout and re-established that historical link between the English and the Catholic Church. The great Puritan poet John Milton opined that “neither man nor angel can discern hypocrisy, the only evil that walks invisible except to God alone” but in the minds of Catholics their lives and deaths are entwined with an eternal set of laws that have remained unchanged since St Peter. These are the legacies that we continue to ponder.

Wise Women

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.

The Great English Blight

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.

The Silent Valley

(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.

Sisters of the Book

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.