August 27


Sir Peter Hall, the Artistic Director of the National Theatre in London at the time this happened, wrote in his diary for today in 1979:

"Dreadful news today. The IRA have murdered Lord Mountbatten, his grandson, and, it is suspected, some of his family. They were all on holiday off Ireland in a fishing-boat which was blown up. The papers speak of radio-controlled lobster-pots. I feel sick."

Roy Jenkins, former Labour Chancellor but at this time President of the European Commission, recorded the event in his diary somewhat differently:

"Bess [Church] gave me the shattering news of Mountbatten's assassination in Ireland. I had last seen him at the Euro Gala at Drury Lane in May, after fifteen years quite close official association with him, not only over the prison enquiry in 1996, but also over various aviation matters before that; and indeed there had been a certain continuing relationship with him in Brussels. Dreadful though it is, I suppose that, from his point of view it is not too bad as he had begun to give the impression of not knowing what to do with the rest of his life, and might even have welcomed a dramatic death, although not one with these wide-effects. He was a pretty remarkable man on the whole, not a great intellect but with exceptional drive and power to pull or push people along with him..."

The Hall is simply what you write when these things happen. The Jenkins is extraordinary: an act of vanity followed by a statement of the most callous uncompassion. Based on the Jenkins one would have to imagine Mountbatten's own diary entry for the night before as:

"Bored and listless. Might as well find a way to die heroically. Roy who?"

But there is also the expression "wide-effects", which may just be a typing error for "side-effects", but makes for an interesting neologism anyway, and leads directly to a question much-asked around the world: do we leave up, or do we take down, the statues of those whom we no longer regard as heroes? And if so, whose should we take down? (see my story "The Statue" in "The Captive Bride")

Mountbatten makes for a good exemplar. We keep him up, self-evidently, because we hold our royal family in deep respect - or at least our internal propaganda is always pro-royal even when the heroes are palpably not heroic. On the other hand, he was the last official representative of British imperialism and colonialism, which we now recognise as a terrible historical error (for those who were subjected to it; a fantastic success, let's be honest, for those back in GB whose world-best economy was built on it). But there is a third dimension: that we leave Mountbatten's statue up, but change the plaque to make him a symbolic reminder of all who have been victims of terrorism?

If we are going to make the decision to take down statues for ideological reasons, it would be useful to have a list of what there is; the one linked here is incomplete (and London-centric, just to make that pointless ideological point as well, ironically), and only includes those maintained by English Heritage (not British Heritage, you will note - another pointless ideological point I feel the need to make, for the benefit of those who take English rather than British History and Literature at GCSE and A level). But it is a list, and those who wish to start with Cecil Rhodes will need a lot of sledgehammers before they get to him.

And then, once we have removed the statues, can we go into the libraries and galleries and museums and start removing the no-longer-acceptable books 

(some good ideas here and here)

and paintings, and musical recordings too? 

And don't forget the gargoyles (properly called grotesques) on the facia of the churches (if there any left after Cromwell's Puritans had a smashing time back in the 1650s). 

And definitely - and you can figure out why for yourself - definitely start by taking down all statues to the German poet Heinrich Heine (oh, alright, click here)

Amber pages

Two of the world's most important philosophers share a birthday:

Confucius, in 551 BCE

Hegel, in 1770

I am inclined to suggest that Confucius has more to offer a contemporary thinker, and will explore that theme when the light changes to green.

 You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2017 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

August 24

79, 472, 512, 685, 787, 968, 1037, 1068, 1078, 1631

History, as I believe I may have said more than once in this collection, is only interesting, let alone significant, when there is a personal dimension. So, aged 6 or 7, I had climbed to the very summit of Mount Vesuvius and stared into its crater, seen the Inferno from the bleachers so to speak, and picked up my illicit lava souvenir (if every tourist took one piece of lava home, the mountain would be flattened completely in less than two million years)... and skipping my youthful way down along the slalom, I slipped, and fell, served me right of course for not listening to my parents telling me to slow down and be careful, but slipped, and fell, and rolled, jagged lava digging into me and scratching me and tearing at my flesh, until I finally reached a dead halt, still alive, if only just, about five feet from where I slipped, and hardly scratched in fact, but that isn't how my psyche remembered it, that isn't how the vertigo I acquired that day remembered it, even if I can laugh about it now.

So Vesuvius became a seminal moment in my young life, and volcanoes (or volcanos, if you prefer; unlike potatoes and tomatoes, let alone Big Toes and Little Toes, which English grammar insists must have that "e")...

Diary, December 16th 2004: "Planning for our Italian holiday found me telling my younger daughter about various previous trips, to Venice in particular, when I was 6 or 7, but also to the south around the same age, staying in Salerno, going to Naples, by hydrofoil to Capri where I remember only the grotto and the house where Gracie Fields lived; and coming back by helicopter because of the rough seas. We went to Pompeii too, and climbed Vesuvius...", which smothered Pompeii today (August 24th) in 79 CE: the younger Pliny witnessed it from Cape Misenum, 15 miles away, while his uncle, Admiral Pliny the Elder, was losing his life trying to rescue the endangered...

Galenus reported that it was still smouldering 93 years later, and 31 years after that, in 203, Dio Cassius heard it erupt again as far away as Padua.

There were two more, in 472 and 512, the first of which Marcellinus Comes described as "causing night during the day and covering all Europe with a fine ash." Cassiodorus described the latter, as part of a plea for tax exemption for those affected by it - so the account may contain elements of hyperbole or subjectivity:

"a burnt ash flies in the sky, and forming ashy clouds it rains with ash droplets also in the provinces beyond the sea... it is possible to see ash rivers flowing like liquid, bringing hot sands... the fields... are ravished by the sudden heat."

685, 787, 968, 1037, 1068, 1078... the dates, or at least the list of dates, is as long as a lava-flow itself... the eruption of 1139 lasted eight days and its ashes covered Salerno, Capua and even Naples... but then... nothing.

Nothing for nearly four hundred years.

1631 made up for it though, the 16th December to be precise (I wish I'd known that when I wrote the diary entry, above).

And always, for me, that lingering memory of climbing to the summit - the Summa Caldera - and looking down into the Gran Coro, half-expecting dragons to accost me or a Dantesque demon to seize me by the throat and drag me down.

As to the piece of lava that I brought home as a souvenir, it sat on my window sill for years, until I left home, and left it there, and my parents moved house, and presumably they too left it there, or threw it away because it looked like junk, because I have never seen it since, except in memory, which anyway has served me better.

Amber pages

William Wilberforce, the man who single-handedly removed the dog-collar from the high priests of slavery, born today in 1759

Henry Maximilian Beerbohm, or simply "Max", English critic and wit, born today in 1872

Jean Rhys, novelist, parturated the waters of the Wild Sargasson Sea, today in 1894

And this in purple, even on an amber page, because royalty always requires purple: Jorge Luis Borges, Argentine poet and author, emerged from the labyrinth of pre-oblivion (and presumably arrived early), today in 1899

While among the events of history:

The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Huguenots in France, described in detail in my novel "A Journey In Time", today in 1572

The female protagonist of that novel, Amelia by name, is somewhat obsessed by her namesake Amelia Earhart, and... but I won't spoil the ending by saying what. In her honour nonetheless, even though there were far greater achievements, and far more tragic dates on which to mark her life (see July 3), Amelia became, today, the first woman to fly non-stop across the USA

And I simply can't resist pointing out, because there are all sorts of things that I want, but which I know I will never be able to obtain, that today, in 1969, "Alice's Restaurant" premiered.

August 19


Really this should be posted under either July 12 (his birth-date in 1876) or better still March 5 (his death-date 
in 1944), but in my personal history this is the correct date.

Ostensibly we were on our annual family holiday, the seven and the five year old being dragged from museum to art gallery to church in the mornings, in exchange for a promise of beach or swimming-pool or aquarium, some less culturally-oriented adventure playground, in the afternoon. We were in Brittany because, frankly, we loved Brittany, but also because I was writing a novel that was set in Brittany, and there were aspects of research I had not known I needed to do on our previous visit (funny, but my piece about Pablo Casals on November 13 also stemmed from a family holiday in Brittany, still researching the same book - eight years later!)

So we had returned to Quimper, the capital of Cornouaiile where King Gradlon had once ruled, with his daughter Dahut - the mythological pair who, reborn as a doting English Arthur and a very liberated modern Frenchwoman, were the hero and heroine of that novel, The Land Beside The Sea. In the shadows of the threatening storm-clouds, the double-spired cathedral made for a strange contrast of dark versus light: one half completely stonewashed, renovated to the very curlicues of the Archbishops' mitres as they lay in – or statuesquely upon – their sarcophagi. That cleanness was emphasised by the light which it too emphasised, giving back its real meaning to the word "graceful". But the other half remained stuck in its own dark age, blackened both with stone-dirt and gloom-light, a mournful lugube of Gregorian chant over the loudspeakers adding sombreness to sombreness. In one of the Lady Chapels a group of alabaster figures congregated round a coffin; they could so easily have become Disneyesque, but managed instead to merit a rare photograph.

I tried to take another photograph in the Musée Des Beaux Arts, but was prevented by a rather belligerent warden. It would have shown Naomi, the five year old, crouched on the floor with wax crayons, making one of several copies of the masters which she insisted on drawing over a two-hour period: her version of Picasso's portrait of Max Jacob (his is at the top of this blog-page), the one he made as an "étude" for "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon", the best of all her efforts.

Jean Moulin - "Au Pardon de Sainte-Anne"
I hadn't realised that Jacob originated from Quimper – born here, as noted above, on July 12th 1876, and commemorated with a permanent exhibition at the museum; one that had been augmented for the season with the story of his friendship with Picasso, and the excuse to show the works of several of their other artist friends as well: Elie Lascaux, Roger Toulouse, Géo Augsbourg, Jean Moulin – some delightful watercolour sketches by him and two portraits of him, one a charcoal sketch by Tuset, the other a wistful Cubist one by Jacob. Pierre de Belay, weak and clichéd as a painter, but strong and interesting in his charcoal sketches – pen-&-ink drawings like squared-off versions of Dürer: one of Picasso in his prime, and another of Max Jacob in the Rue Ravignan strongly reminiscent of Mervyn Peake.

An outstanding poet and prose-writer, Jacob was very much a minor painter, conventionally Impressionist before he met Picasso, dutifully experimental afterwards (you can see dozens of his works at the Quimper Museum's online archive, just click here and keep scrolling the pages). But it was neither his poetry nor his prose nor his paintings, nor even his homosexuality, which cost him his life. When the Nazis occupied France and Jews were made to to wear the yellow star, his formal baptism into the Catholic faith, with PP as his godfather, long before Hitler came to power, meant absolutely nothing. A Jew was a Jew, even if he wore the Cross. And after the yellow star, the deportation.

On February 24th 1944 he was arrested and, after spending four days in an Orléans prison, was sent to Drancy, the main transition-camp for Poland. He died of pneumonia on March 5th 1944, without ever reaching the official death-camps. His body was exhumed in 1949 and buried in his adoptive home of St Benoit sur Loire. Portraits by PP, Cocteau, Modigliani and many others show a distinguished, Roman head, completely hairless, long and thin and thoroughly Germanic.

The Picasso section contained several from the very first, Vollard, exhibition of 1901, at the culmination of the Blue period: innumerable collages, cubist sketches, cartoons, études for "Mlle Léonie". There was a heaviness, in form and colour – the portrait of Suzanne Bloch for example – which reminded me of Chagall's muddy juvenilia; though the woman in "Woman & Child At The Seaside" is magnificent: light of touch, serene of face, a candidate for a Pietà.

Pablo Picasso, “Portrait of Max Jacob” (1915).
Private collection. Courtesy of ARS.
Nor had I realised that it was Matisse who introduced Picasso to African art, and thereby prompted the "Demoiselles d'Avignon", of which four quite stunning études were on display here, one of them that Max Jacob portrait with blue hair which looks quite remarkably like a homage to Matisse's 1905 portrait of his wife

Apparently Matisse held a dinner for Max Jacob, Picasso, Apollinaire and André Salmon one night in 1907, and showed them some miniatures he had just acquired – a 9” model from his collection was one of the pieces on display, which my diary tells me I copied in rough biro, though sadly I can find no trace of the sketchbook. I tried to explain Cubism to Hannah, the seven year old, but she could make no sense of it - who really can, even among the adults? - nor discern the real shapes reduced to those geometric forms. Since most, especially the faces, are based on triangles not cubes, is not the name wrong anyway? Triangularism? N sat on a chair and coloured in a quick cubist invention of her own, much impressing the tourists! H made worm-drawings!

And why such deep interest in Max Jacob, beyond the wish to commemorate still one more of the Holocaust dead, and the love of great Art? In the summer of 1982 I began work on a novel, and when I needed a name for what was then a secondary character, but who would become the equally primary character when the one novel grew into a novel sequence, I named him Max for my great-uncle who rescued scores of Jews from Poland in the years before it was no longer possible, and gave him the last name Jacob, because Biblical Jacob, the wrestler with the inner-angel at Penu-El, is central to all my books. At that time I had never so much as heard of this Max Jacob, neither as poet nor as painter, let alone as one of the six million.

You can find many of his poems, in translation, at The Poetry Foundation - click here.

Amber pages

Orville Wright, aviation pioneer, born today in 

Quentin Bell, member of the Bloomsbury crowd, born today in 1910

Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who really brought down Soviet Communism, ousted from power by a military coup, today in 1991

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2017 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

July 10


We are brought up to have heroes who are Arthurian - but when eventually we learn that there was no human Arthur, only a mythological one, an analogy for the sun and the constellations of the heavens, that we have been cheated with a fairy-tale, our faith in all our heroes fails, even those who were genuinely flesh and blood.

As a child my greatest hero was King David, and it took me the writing of a trilogy to gain the non-Arthurian perspective without actually losing faith. Along with David - I am excluding the living heroes, the Dylans and the Bothams, but even more the Sakharovs and Wallenbergs and Bikos - there was El Cid, a character I first encountered in a Hollywood biopic that may or may not have been directed by Cecil B de Mille, but ought to have been; and which may or may not have been historically accurate, but likewise ought to have been.

Cid is the Spanish pronunciation of Sidi, "my lord", an Arabic variation on the Semitic Adonis, as I now know but didn't then; this was what his Moorish enemies called him, and it is a most complimentary name, for one who is your mortal enemy, vowed to your defeat, your overthrow, your expulsion.

His real name was Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, and though he was merely a Castillian nobleman by birth, he styled himself Ruy (King) Diaz before he became El Cid, and sometimes, even more vaingloriously, even more preposterously, El Campeador, something equivalent to the Bolívaran "El Liberador" (see my piece on July 5), but even more to the Arthurian "Champion" - and of course Arthur is really Ar-Thur, in Saxon: "the king", so maybe this is where the English mediaevalists who reduced the mythological tales of god-Arthur to the mere courtly romances of King Arthur found their model. Just look at the wings of that flying cape, look at that beard - is that not King Arthur, is that not his Breton equivalent, King Gradlon, is that not the model for Cervantes' Don Quixote, riding out to liberate España from the fairy-tale fantasies of knighthood?

A Spanish Arthur then - and a precursor of Simon Bolívar in every way. He came into the world of authentic fairy tales in Burgos in 1043, and left it, having spent his whole life fighting for the liberation of Spain from the Moors, having achieved only one victory - the capture of Valencia in 1094 - on this day in 1099. One of the heroes of the Immaculate Failure.

You can read the whole of his story, in English translation from the 12th century "Cantar del mio Cid", by clicking here.

Amber pages

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American painter, born today in 
1834 - that's his "Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1" on the right, often mis-named "Whistler's Mother", which it is, but that wasn't his point. A counterfeit version of the painting by Tomas Dudando lies at the heart of my novel "A Singular Shade of Grey", due for publication very soon.

Marcel Proust, French novelist, entered lost time, or perhaps simply began to lose track of it, or merely waste it, today in 1871.

Saul Bellow, Canadian novelist - Canadian, not American, though even most North Americans seem to make that error - began to do what Albertus Magnus predicted for the young Aquinas, today in 1915 (save your puzzlement, click here.

Paul Verlaine, French poet, shot Arthur Rimbaud, French poet, today in 1873. The wounds in Rimbaud's flesh would prove to be rather less than those in Verlaine's pride.

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2017 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

July 5


Simón Bolívar, the Spaniard who was no more Spanish than Marx and Freud were Jewish, the Liberator of South America who wasn't really a South American despite being born in Caracas, but rather a Frenchman manqué (he studied law in Madrid but trained for his destiny in Paris during the Revolution) today Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad de Bolívar y Palacios achieved his first triumph, the declaration of independence of Venezuela.

Liberator, or dictator - the words are not synonyms, though they are often used interchangeably. When they realised what freedom and independence actually entailed, the Venezuelans drove the Liberator out, and resisted all his endeavours to return. When Venezuela proved indomitable, he invented the new nation of Colombia, an expansion of the original Colombia which incorporated conquered Venezuela and New Granada, with Ecuador added later, and briefly Peru, whose northern territories were given the honour of bearing his name into posterity: Bolivia.

Was this simply the dream of an ambitious man to found and govern his own empire? Or is Bolívar the prototype of another kind of individual, the one who, belonging to no nation, has to invent the symbol of himself so that others may make a nation or an institution of it, and thereby imbue him with importance, not through his sense of belonging, but through theirs?

Bolívar is remembered as a hero, yet plainly the man, like most despots and dictators, was far more Super Id than he was Super Ego, though there was no shortage of Ego either.

He learned Revolution in Paris, but in fact he didn't reach Paris until well after the Terror had bedded in; perhaps this clouded his understanding, and like so many before and after he mistook the one for the other. Born in 1783, he was not yet a teenager when the French gave up their Republican ideals for what became a prefiguration of both the Bolívaran and the Communist empires. I believe he chose the month of July, and specifically the 5th July, on the one hand as an act of ostentatious symbolism, on the other as a declaration, less of independence than intent, but also as an act of nostalgia for his Paris youth.

To begin the liberation of South America on the date immediately following that of North America places that moment at an interesting point of linear history. But the future history of that line is unpredictable, and now, if you look it up in an almanac, yes, it is still in situ where he placed it, but for we who come afterwards and can look back, there are also the pages that now follow it: the storming of the Bastille on the 14th, the shooting of the Tsar and all his family on the 16th, the guillotining of Charlotte Corday on the 17th, the burning of Rome and the publication of Mein Kampf on the 18th, and one of the great modern nationalist uprisings on the 26th, when El Liberador of the Arabs, Gamil Abdul Nasser, overthrew the yoke of Christian Capitalist Imperialism and declared the Suez Canal Egyptian. Plus ça change, or however you might say that in Bolívaran Spanish (nás ça cambio possibly?)...

See also my fuller account of his life and politics on the Bolivia page of The World Hourglass, and a reference and a picture of the London plaque under June 24 of this blog-book. The page on Venezuela in TheWorldHourglass may shortly be in need of further updating. The illustration at the top of the page shows the youthful Bolívar, in Haiti; the one on the right is the head of the statue in London's Belgrave Square (downloaded from the Internet because, on the day that I went to take my own photo, there was an anti-Maduro march in progress, and someone had hung a placard round his neck that read "Maduro Murderer"; so I didn't take the photograph)

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2017 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

June 24


Two entries on this occasion, theoretically unconnected: one about Dante, the other about Nelson Mandela - and yes, the year is 1890, 28 years before Mandela was born, 569 years after the death of Dante. The strange ways in which history happens, gets recorded, gets remembered - and changes in the process.

1. A fresco of Dante Alighieri

Supplementary to my novel "A Journey In Time", which charts the universal history of June 27th (my birthday - no one ever chooses arbitrary dates!), but which has self-evidently left out billions of episodes, most of them because they do not merit the recording. This one does not really belong on June 27th anyway, though it also does, for reasons that will become apparent, but June 24th is the right place to locate it, unless September 14th, which was his actual death-date. The passage below is from Harriet Rubin's splendid "Dante In Love", pp 229/230:

After his death, Florence wanted Dante back. "Ah! The shame of having to record that a mother was envious of her own child," Boccaccio vituperated to the city fathers. "He [Dante] cannot do to Florence dead what living he would never have done... Hardly can I believe that, if dead bodies are capable of feeling, that of Dante would wish to leave the place where it lies now to return to you." Ravenna, Boccaccio said, "bathed in the blood of martyrs, is a more hospitable home." Guido [Cavalcante, Dante's "first friend"] staged a contest for a design of a fitting burial place for Dante. Not long after his bones were assumed to be safely in the ground, the Florentines moved in and tried to dig up the corpse of Dante Alighieri. On December 22 1396, Florence made a formal demand for his remains. Ravenna refused. Another demand came on February 1, 1492, and a third refusal came in 1529, when Michelangelo offered to build a tomb for "the divine poet". Then an official party was dispatched. It was the bad luck of the magistrate of Ravenna that he had that month refused to pay the enormous salaries of the Papal Swiss Guard, and the Pope, Leo X, had held them in Cesena, leaving Ravenna undefended. The Florentine envoys arrived in the dead of night and raised the stone lid of Dante's tomb. To their astonishment, they found it empty except for a few bone chips and withered laurel leaves. Their report concluded:

"It being believed that in his lifetime [Dante] made the journey through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, so in death it must now be assumed that in body as well as in spirit in either one or other of the realms he has been received and welcomed."

So the matter was left until, in 1890, documentation was found that a Franciscan had, centuries earlier, broken into the sarcophagus and removed the bones for safe-keeping elsewhere in Ravenna. The records revealed where the monk hid Dante's remains. Once recovered, they were put on display in Ravenna for three days, from June 24 to June 26, 1890. People came from everywhere to say they had seen the great Dante Alighieri. On June 27, all that could be buried of Dante was entombed in a great white vault surrounded by a tiny garden in Ravenna."

detail from Luca Signorelli's "Dante fresco", 
Chapel of San Brizio, Orvieto Cathedral

2. The fresco in celluloid 

I am fascinated by the ways in which novels and movies determine history, sometimes when they don't even pretend to be accurately historical. 

So this second piece is rooted in a 2009 visit to the cinema (sorry, movie theatre: the visit took place in America) to see the film "Invictus", in which Matt Damon made a brave attempt at playing rugby and Morgan Freeman a quite brilliant one at playing Nelson Mandela. The movie is set at the time of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa at the very moment that apartheid was being dismantled, an opportunity brilliantly seized by Mandela to unite whites and blacks and coloured people under a common banner when the alternative might very well have been civil war and bloodshed. The movie's title comes from the "fact" that Mandela had the poem of that name by William Ernest Henley written on a scrap of paper in his prison cell on Robben Island during the decades of his incarceration there. As captain François Pienaar, played by Damon, struggles to get his team up to standard, Mandela invites him to Pretoria, and gives him a copy of the poem, hoping it will inspire Pienaar and his team as it had inspired him. It works. South Africa lifts the Rugby World Cup. And all is for the best in the best of all possible Hollywood South Africas.

Except that, in reality it wasn't "Invictus" - the entire movie is promulgated on a falsehood, a convenient fiction; or possibly a research error. In reality, what Mandela gave to Pienaar was an extract from Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech from 1910.

So with the elevation to heroic status of Lawrence of Arabia, owing somewhat less to his actual heroics than to his depiction by Peter O'Toole in the David Lean movie. 

So too the elevation to sainthood of Oskar Schindler. Some years ago I watched a British television documentary, a biography of Oskar Schindler, who had been acclaimed as a "Righteous Gentile" after the publication of Thomas Keneally's book - Schindler's List in some countries, Schindler's Ark in others - and then Steven Spielberg's movie, but who this documentary showed to be a great deal less than a righteous gentile, and a great deal more of a practised conman who used his Jewish slaves coldly and calculatedly to secure his own safety from a war crimes trial when the final defeat of Nazism took place. Yet, as with "Invictus", as with Lawrence, the world now believes the book version, and especially the film version, and this despite our full awareness that movies are regularly "based on" or "inspired by" historical events, and are rarely an attempt to write whatever a "faithful and accurate" account might be anyway.

Richard III, unknown artist, c 1590
There are countless examples of this - and I invite my readers to share others that they know. Shakespeare's travesty of Macbeth is already on this blog - see August 15 - but is by no means unique among the revised accounts of history for which a debt is owed to the Bard. Richard III is the most currently conspicuous - Richard only became "Crokeback" when Shakespeare invented him as such, and did so as a means of parodying the Lord Chancellor Robert Cecil, who was indeed mildly hunchbacked, or at least a sufferer from the early signs of osteoporosis - but giving the hump to Richard was rather better than giving the hump to Cecil. Yet now that hump has become so "historical" that the skeleton of a hunchback, disinterred beneath a Leicester parking lot in 2013, has been "confirmed" as his corpse, and the corpse is now fact, like Christian relics of the True Cross in the Middle Ages; while the only residual dispute is over tourism opportunities.

In the era of Soviet Communism, when people were in power one day and in Siberia or the grave the next, newspapers and schoolbooks were updated continuously, and the process was known as the "airbrushing" of history. Prior to that it was called "whitewashing", and for a very good reason, one which has itself been "whitewashed", rather like the maquillage painted on her face to cover up the smallpox scars - because boy! does she now have a pure and perfect reputation as the Virgin Queen. The first Queen Elizabeth, I mean. Muse of the Golden Age of English Literature, and of the theatres too, much encouraged by her, and not only for the plays - what Elizabeth really loved was the bear-baiting: still more torture of the innocent. Ah yes, whitewashed.

Actually it was her father who started it, but like most things in his life he did it very badly. When he broke with Rome to establish the Church of England, he didn't just dissolve the monasteries and sell off the abbeys and transform the Catholic churches into Protestant ones, he also tried to remove every last vestige of Catholicism from those churches, which included - and I'll bet you didn't know this, because it has been completely airbrushed out of our telling of English history - the whitewashing of every single wall and pillar.
Until then churches had been gloriously multi-coloured, their fluted pillars ornate like the palm-tree pillars of Moslem mosques, only done with paint, not tiles. Interior walls and vaulted ceilings were entirely frescos, just like the one of Dante at Orvieto above, or the Danish church on the left (itself a modern "restoration", but the Danish philistines used limewash rather than whitewash: much easier to remove): a Piagetian classroom for the illiterate, telling the Biblical tales, Hebrew "Old" as well as Christian "New", or recording the lives of the English martyrs - St Alban, St Thomas Becket, dozens of others. 

 They might have been third-rate, or they might have been English Giottos and Andrea del Sartos, but we will never know, because, when Elizabeth came to the throne and saw how thin the whitewash was, how faded already, how easy it would be for some restorer to come along, one day in the future, and revive them as part of the restoration of Catholicism, she gave instruction to repaint, and then repaint again, as many coats as necessary to ensure that restoration would be rendered quite impossible. And so it is. "The Lost Fresco Art of Mediaeval England". An interesting point of contrast with "The Golden Age of English Literature".

Elizabethan whitewashing has gone on and on until today, propagandising her as the greatest monarch England ever had, when in fact she supported an informer network worthy of the KGB, and was responsible - indirectly, obviously, through her agents; her hands where as pure, clean white as her church walls - for more torture of her own people than all the other English monarchs put together; almost all of her victims Catholics. She was also the Founding Patroness of the "British Empire" - a term coined by the Head of what was not yet MI6, but still her international spy network, the scientist and mystic John Dee (whose code-name, incidentally, was 007); and that empire, the base of our economy today, was built on piracy. The so-called "Golden Age" only started after the defeat of the Armada - thirty years after she came to the throne; and the significance of the Turkish second front in defeating the Armada is simply ignored on GCSE and A level history curricula.

There are countless other examples, one of which - the changing of the ending of Anna Michaels' novel "Fugitive Pieces", in its film version - I have written about in my essay collection "Homage To Thomas Bowdler". That is a slightly different case however; the changing of a fictionalised account of history rather than a fictionalisation of the history itself; though the impact may well be comparable.

Of those that alter history itself, none is more insidious than the reduction of all pre-Norman British history to folk-tales and fairy-stories - other than a scanty survey of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, British history in schools and universities begins with the Norman conquest, and what is called "English Literature", in spite of its inclusion of Dylan Thomas (Welsh), W.B. Yeats (Irish), Sir Walter Scott (Scottish) et al, and while students may well study the Anglo-Saxon "Beowulf" as a linguistic and cultural source, the Welsh "Mabinogion" and the Irish "Táin Bó Cuailnge", despite being two of the great works of world literature, are not on the reading list, not even in English translation; while the centuries of Celtic hegemony before they were expelled to the remotest corners of Greater England, and their very different way of organising society, patterned like the pre-Hellenic Greek, the Davidian Hebrew, the Aztec, Mayan and Inca, and many others, on an attempt to mirror on Earth the organisation of the cosmos by the gods - not even on the curriculum. Tales of immense mythological and aetiological significance, equivalent to the Biblical and the Homeric and the Vedic, reduced during the Middle Ages to those splendid little love stories and courtly fantasies and dragon-hunting epics, which crowned a human Arthur as a chivalric king, and gave his cosmic court a decidedly English round table on which to eat its decidedly French meals - agneau au vin, roti de porc, pommes frites. More whitewash.

The history that was once taught through oral and written tales, or through frescoed paintings, is now achieved through films - my theme before I distracted myself. But how do we know we can trust them? 

Emilio Estevez's film "Bobby" for example, which recounts, according to its own blurb, how "the lives of a retired doorman (Anthony Hopkins), hotel manager (William H. Macy), lounge singer (Demi Moore), busboy (Freddy Rodriguez), beautician (Sharon Stone) and others intersect in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles", all of which made for a very compelling movie, until you learned from the credits that all of those characters were entirely fictional and therefore what actually happened that night at the Ambassador must have been very different.

Or there is ITV's Tutenkhamun’s Tomb TV mini-series from 2016, whose final two parts depend on the love-affair between archaeologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb, and Lady Evelyn, the daughter of Lord Carnarvon, Carter's chief financial supporter; alas, there never was such an affair, but the second half of the series would have been very boring without it, so the writers wrote it in.

Heading to Marylebone Library in central London, to find a desk where I could finish writing this, I happened to walk along Duke Street, and there, on the wall at number 4 like a fresco in metal, one of those plaques that adorn so many London buildings, this one square and grey, and therefore unofficial - the official plaques are blue and circular. "Simon Bolivar", it reads. "El Libertador, the great Latin American statesman and patriot who liberated Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, stayed in this house in 1810." El Libertador!? This, indeed, is how he is remembered. This, indeed, was the model that he learned at the feet (or mostly the dining-room table) of Napoleon Buonaparte, from his heroic liberation of Europe. Does that already make you question it? So you should. And then see my other pieces about him, on July 5 of this blog-book, and on the Bolivia page of "The World Hourglass".

The Rugby World Cup in South Africa ended with the host nation's victory over New Zealand on June 24th 1995 - the reason for my otherwise random and arbitrary choice of date for this blog-page.

Below you can read both of the "Invictus" pieces, the Henley poem copied here because it's brief eough to do so, the Roosevelt speech by means of hyperlink, it being far too long to copy, though I have left a taster of its opening, below.




Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.


Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic"Delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat...

read the whole speech here

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