Calleva Atrebatum and all that

It hardly seems worth putting links to the claims and counter-claims that have followed Michael Gove’s irascible statements about Blackadder views of World War I.   Perhaps the best (and genuinely critical) précis of the [can I call it?] debate, is to be found here, in a blog post on the Imperial and Global Forum from Marc-William Palen at Exeter. In any case, it’s not the argument I’m really interested in, and Dave Aldridge’s work on remembrance (see his blog for a taste) already goes way beyond what I could say.

What prompts a blog post tonight is a quotation in Charlotte Higgins’ book Under Another Sky, which I was given at Christmas and which I am really enjoying.  In exploring Roman Britain she has moved from messy Londinium to the quieter and more ordered Silchester – Calleva Atrebatum – only to reveal it, too, is a site where tangles of Romano-British religious practices, loyalties and rivalries do not make for a straightforward narrative.   She contrasts this with Rosemary Sutcliff’s vision of Calleva in “The Eagle of the Ninth,” and quotes Sutcliff saying that she is “happiest…in Roman Britain:”

“If I could do a time flip and land back in Roman Britain, I would take a deep breath, take perhaps a fortnight to get used to things, then be all right… I have a special “Ah, here I am again, I know exactly what they are going to have for breakfast” feeling…”

 One way of looking at this is to say that it is part of our own spiritual and cultural identity that we construct a world we feel we would like to be at home in; Rosemary Sutcliff had a great gift for portraying that home, and giving flesh to long-dead bones, stories to long-forgotten artefacts. I could feel the same about some parts of the Middle Ages – but I know (as I suspect Sutcliff knew) that this is fantasy, really. Sources help us do history better than stories do – although stories have a part to play.

I am less sure that some of the voices raised are clear about this themselves, when we/they discuss World War I.  I suppose I can claim to have had a Grandpa in the Boer War and in the trenches – I still have the touching and eye-opening letters he sent the young woman who was to become my Grandmother; I have met people who were there, listened to the way they avoided talking about the enemy as a group of people, only as a single, dehumanised Enemy. I guess there are quite a few people who have similar experiences. I guess most of them, like me, will not claim, on the strength of that, to pontificate about what it was “really like” in the trenches.

My worry is when politicians, rather than historians, start telling us what must be taught in schools about how things were. Myth-makers with the power to wreck history?

Tim Whitmarsh’s review of Charlotte Higgins’ book in the Guardian makes an important point:

The temptation to retool our Roman heritage so that it looks the way we want it to can be overpowering.

Perhaps the “Great Times in WWI” story is a rewrite that seeks to up the patriotic flag in history; I think it has badly backfired.  I think at the heart of Whitmarsh’s caveat is something that historiography always seeks to explore; the temptation to which he refers is something that  perhaps the Secretary of State and some of his opponents have succumbed to. A group of people want World War I to be glorious sacrifice, or the noble and legitimate struggle for freedom; another group want it to be mindless, a massive slaughter of young, uncomprehending men rising from lousy, mud-swilling trenches to their deaths.

In some ways, now-quiet Calleva stands as a very good warning to people seeking to make history fit their view of what it should have been. It is not only ancient history that makes myths. Higgin’s chapter ends with an example from a schoolboyish copy of a scene from the Aeneid (itself, of course, a reworking of an imagined history – but let that pass) where the guests at a feast are hushed:

But for me the clamour of the people of Calleva Atrebatum is forever stilled.  I will not – I cannot – hear them. The silence is not the hush of expectation, but the chill of secrets.