View from my office
Fire engine sirens continue to wail outside my office window above the National Library of Wales. By now, millions around the world will have seen the appalling pictures of the library’s roof on fire.
Fortunately, the flames have been doused, and the smoke that just an hour ago issued in thick billows from the roof has been reduced to spectre-thin coils. Attention is turning to the recovery plan. I’ve added my name to the list of hundreds of volunteers who over the next couple of days will be forming chains to pass a portion of the library’s millions of books – now under threat from the huge volumes of water moving unpredictably around the building – out of harm’s way. First trial by fire, now by water.
The sight of smoke rising in thick palls – now white, now black – from the roof of the iconic building was shocking in a way that’s perhaps difficult to imagine. Shocking, I think, not just because my profession is books, but also because libraries – and especially national ones – are cultural repositories. To judge from the magnificent response of university and NLW staff, students and members of the Aberystwyth public, we feel moved to salvage the tangible records of our thoughts, achievements, and desires.
There is something potent about the very thought of books burning – it conjures anxieties about annals erased, cultures unmade, radical voices silenced, new thoughts fire-censored.
The biggest book burning of the Romantic period was that which took place during the often forgotten transatlantic war of the early nineteenth century. Established in 1800 by an Act of Congress in America’s then new capital city, Washington DC, the Library of Congress and its 3,000 holdings were destroyed by British Regulars and Canadian Militia, who in August 1814 set about burning the capital’s public buildings, including the White House. The Library of Congress was singled out as a symbol. Within months, Jefferson had sold his private library of some 6,000 volumes to restock the de facto national library.
It’s started raining here. But the sirens are still shrieking.
Soldier playing salpinx (bronze trumpet)
There are, says Keats in Endymion, “those who lord it o’er their fellow-men”, and do so to the “fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets … and belabour’d drums”. In each of his 25 poetic references to brass instruments, Keats has in mind military trumpets rather than civilian cornets, euphoniums and basses – and given that he preferred “ditties of no tones” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), we perhaps shouldn’t in any case pay too much heed to his sense of that instrument’s “fraught” joys (“Calidore”).
The group with one of the strongest claims to the title of world’s first brass band is the Stalybridge Old Band, formed in Manchester in 1809. Soon renamed the New Band, they rehearsed under the baton of Thomas Avison in a cellar behind the Golden Fleece inn. In 1819, its members became involved in one of the defining political actions of the Romantic period, engaged to play at the event that became known as the “Peterloo Massacre”.
"fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets ..." (John Keats)
Contemporary engraving of Peterloo Massacre
On 16th August 1819, in a huge assembly that marked the culmination of a season of marches across the North of England, workers and political groups gathered on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, demanding parliamentary reform and the repeal of the corn laws. Notorious radicals such as Richard Carlile, John Cartwright and Henry “Orator” Hunt were engaged to address the crowd, swelled in numbers to between 60,000 and 80,000. Those who turned out that day stood beneath fluttering banners calling for “Universal Suffrage”, “Annual Parliaments”, “No Corn Laws” and “Vote By Ballot”. Many held aloft red liberty caps, an incendiary symbol linked to the French Revolution.
"The cry went up among the Yeomanry ... Have at their flags!" (Peterloo eyewitness account)
The authorities responded by sending in the mounted Manchester Yeomanry, who unleashed indiscriminate violence. Sabres unsheathed, the mounted troops charged into the panicked ranks of men, women and children, killing fifteen and injuring many dozens. Newspapers and pamphlets were filled with eyewitness accounts of the brutality, fuelling national outrage. Poems written soon after the event by Romantic poets Percy Shelley (“Ode to the West Wind”), John Keats (“To Autumn”) and Barry Cornwall (“Autumn”) appear to allude to the chaotic energies of that day.
As for Stalybridge Old Band, there's some uncertainty whether the players made it to St Peter's Fields. It's likely that the authorities, having got wind of their planned involvement, detained them at a nearby pub.
BBC footage: click image for source
My own experience with brass banding began at the age of nine. In 1979, I joined Abergavenny Borough Band, playing cornet (badly) for ten years until I left Wales for the North of England myself to begin a degree in English Literature at Leeds University. My banding career coincided with the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, one of the most socially divisive periods in recent British history, when Margaret Thatcher’s determination to force pit closures and confront union power sparked almost a year of bitter industrial action. Memories of those years – marked by regular and to a fourteen-year-old boy shocking TV footage of large-scale confrontations between miners and police – are back in the public consciousness this week with the former Prime Minister’s death and funeral.
Over 11,000 arrests made during the Miners' Strike
Click image for source
Many of the striking collieries had brass bands associated with them, each with proud traditions. Abergavenny Borough Band regularly competed against these bands in hotly disputed contests up and down the South Wales valleys. When the strikes finally ended – extreme poverty, intimidation and hardship on families having taken its toll – many of the miners marched back to the pits behind their brass bands in desperately moving “loyalty parades”. One of the most heart-rending, dignified scenes from that period is the sight of the Maerdy miners holding their union banners aloft, being led back to work by the colliery band, its numbers severely depleted, to the strains of “Slaidburn” on the cold morning of 5th March 1985.
I spent this weekend up in Manchester supporting Aberystwyth Youth Band at the National Youth Brass Band Championships. The contest was held at the Royal Northern College of Music, less than a mile away from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
What an Easter break. Our ASLE-UKI-INSPIRE prize essay (see blog below) on Shakespeare and the food chain was picked up by Jonathan Leake, Science and Environmental Editor of Sunday Times. With the kind of media-savvy you’d expect from, well, a paper whose circulation is pushing 900,000, Sunday Times focused the story as Shakespeare the “tax-dodger” and “grain hoarder” in a time of dearth. We found ourselves on the front page leader column, page 22 and the Editorial on page 28. Then the phones started ringing.
Daily Mail, Mirror, Huffington Post, Telegraph, Independent, Yahoo! OMG, Der Tagesspiegel, Spiegel Online, LA Times, MSN News and Forbes followed it up, journalists rang for interviews and syndicated versions of the original research with new mash-ups went global. We made Radio 4’s review of the papers, news bulletins throughout the day and there are even reports (unconfirmed) that Sir Terry Wogan commented on the story. One of the day's highlights was an invitation from Stacy Herbert via Twitter to be interviewed about the “bankster bard” on the Keiser Report. [UPDATE: After the noon news on his Radio 2 show on Easter Sunday, Terry Wogan, remarking on the Shakespeare story in his beautiful, buttery brogue, uttered the enigmatic words: "Probably bacon". We may never know for certain what he had in mind, but he was perhaps referring to the fact that Shakespeare's father, among many things, was a butcher. Either that, or he was remembering J. Dover Wilson's often-quoted remark that the restored Stratford funerary monument makes the bard look like a "self-satisfied pork butcher". Or he was alluding to Francis Bacon.]
Reactions, inevitably, have been mixed, ranging from “this story makes Shakespeare seem more human and accessible” to “Welshski kommies knock England’s national hero”. The comments at the end of Daily Mail’s online coverage provide a good spread of public views in this regard. Huffington Post's online comments section is also heaving (over 500 views expressed so far) – with some excellent engagement with the political angles. Patt Morrison has written a very good opinion piece in LA Times in response to the research, with a great punch-line, ditto Alexander Lee in History Today.
While grain-hoarding certainly provides a popular way into the discussion, our research is concerned with exploring the ways in which an acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s involvement with agrarian trade helps us to read his works with a greater awareness of the tropes and metaphors that may have mattered most to him. As we wrote in Times Literary Supplement in 2010, and in our recently published Shakespeare Quarterly essay, play-goers have become increasingly used to seeing King Lear presented on a bare stage, in a ground-zero, psychologized staging where what’s at stake is a man’s struggle with the human condition itself. Yet key sections of the play are set in a corn field, and Shakespeare carefully references crop weeds such as the bastard wheat relative, psychotoxic cereal mimicker, darnel (lolium temulentum), to address themes of political and familial infiltration – “bastardy”, in the play’s terms.
In addition, the problem that sets the action of King Lear going is Lear’s division of the kingdom. Divisive in more ways than one. As we argue in our published work, by giving the scrubland, mountains and unproductive land to Goneril and Regan, and the valuable grain-growing regions to Cordelia, Lear is guaranteeing the derangement of the kingdom in the form of resource wars. A Shakespeare who knew all about the value of grain at a time of national dearth wasn’t making references to the corruption of the food chain by darnel or to squabbles over the most fertile land lightly. His crop weeds are not “literary” weeds, and the setting of Lear’s madness, his personal derangement, in a wheatfield – emphatically not a bare stage – shouldn't be seen as arbitrary. At any rate, looking beyond the headlines of grain-hoarding and tax-dodging, our work attempts to reconnect the plays with the crisis of food supply, distribution and sustenance in the England of Shakespeare's own day – crisis in which, through his business dealings, the playwright was himself a player.
Jayne, Sid and I will be discussing our ASLE-UKI-INSPIRE paper at the Hay Festival on 23 May, 7pm, along with Adeline Johns-Putra of ASLE-UKI, and Jane Davidson, Director of INSPIRE and former Welsh Minister for Environment and Sustainability.
Jayne's interview on Good Morning Wales with Felicity Evans (timing: 55.37-59.10)
My interview with Julian Marshall on BBC World Service’s Newshour (timing: 18.30-22.49)
Pdfs of Sunday Times coverage (front page, p. 22). Jonathan Leake, science editor of The Sunday Times, published these articles on March 31, 2013. The originals can be seen at www.thesundaytimes.co.uk
Fox News Radio bulletin. Newsy video feature.