Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Consensus Busting

Wasn't all that sleepy last night, so I watched a movie. I chose "All the President's Men". Partly because I could watch it for free, partly because it's a very good, intelligent film (great script, great cast, great director), partly because I wanted to see something about two guys beating the system.

It's not the complexity of the Woodward-and-Bernstein investigation into the Watergate scandal that sticks with me, having watched the film again. It's the sheer number of nay-sayers, gainsayers, cowards and downright liars who tried to stop the investigation in its tracks.

Amazingly, the Washington Post stood by its young reporters, when the entire Nixon administration was crying foul and denying, denying, denying everything that turned out to be true.

But as you watch the film you occasionally get the distinct impression that, had it not been for the sheer persistence of the journalists and a good old-fashioned sense of right and wrong at the Washington Post, the scandal might never have been exposed. There were so many moments when the whole thing could have been called off because only a handful of people doubted the official line.

The pressure to give up, to leave the story alone, and to let Nixon get on with his presidency unencumbered by investigations into his devious ways, must have been incredible.

Still, between them, after an immensity of hard work and many reversals, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein managed to bust through the consensus.

Now, history is basically consensus, and that consensus is always susceptible to change. For example, I discovered only two nights ago that some 300-400 black sailors fought for Britain under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. As did a number of Americans, Danes, Portugese, French ... It was kind of a multinational force. Britain won, famously, but many races helped.

To learn that sort of thing is to find that history is different - richer, deeper, more complex - than previously imagined.

But there is always resistance to that sort of thing. Those who create and enforce the consensus have a nasty habit of fighting tooth and nail to preserve it.

Like those White House officials who continually slammed the Washington Post (until some of those officials were found guilty on a number of counts), there are conservative egos out there who will stop at nothing to try to ensure that no view, no perspective, no reading of history - no consensus - ever changes.

I feel a bit like Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein. The evidence is definitely there. But there are powerful voices who won't allow their delicate little consensus to be busted. Even though it is vital, if we want to understand Shakespeare's works or recognise Arthur's key role in the history of Britain, to blow that consensus to smithereens.

It is the cosy consensus that stands in the way of such understanding. Why? Because it made up its mind long ago (according to the standards of the time) and has refused to alter it ever since. Which means that generations of students are being fed outdated nonsense in the name of "history". They are also being fed boring history - which is a crime against humanity. History is one of the most fascinating, engaging, intriguing subjects there is. To make it boring is to conspire against knowledge and the spirit of enquiry - it is to destroy when it should be creating, to depress when it ought to inspire.

Currently, the historical establishment is sitting on the facts, rather like those officials at the White House, and doing everything it can to silence or belittle anyone who offers a real insight into their subject.

The establishment relies on consensus - even when that consensus is outworn and no longer of any real value. In fact, it's an elitist affront to learning and understanding, to history itself and to those who lived it.

The historical consensus must be busted altogether. Woodward and Bernstein were right, and the Post was right to stand by them.

So where are our heroes of free speech today? And who is supporting and defending their efforts?

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


So. It's done.

Yesterday afternoon I pressed "Send" and then sat back, exhausted. And was completely useless the rest of the evening.

It happened like this a couple of months back, when I sent the revised book proposal for Will's Treason - Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot off to my agent. That had taken me two full months to research, write and revise.

And now, same goes for Commanding Youth - The True Story of Arthur and the Fall of Britain. Weeks of work, then off she goes.

So now what?

Wait and see ...

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Life of Will

What's this? Two blogs in a week? Has he gone mad?

No. It's just that I'm so lucky. Stratford-upon-Avon is a thirty-minute bus ride from the top of my lane. It'd be even quicker if the bus didn't have to explore every village in between - but that wouldn't be quite so much fun.

So this afternoon I popped over to Stratford (by bus) to attend a talk about Shakespeare biographies. It was kind of an informal interview, as Professor Stanley Wells (Chair, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) asked David Bevington (University of Chicago) about his new book.

There have been quite a few biographies of Shakespeare published in recent years and I've read pretty well all of them. David Bevington has examined how all these biographies differ from one another.

His is rather a slim book.

The fact is, Shakespeare biographies are tiresome because they are almost all the same. Okay, you get Germaine Greer trying to convince us that Mrs Shakespeare was just brilliant (oh yeah? hardly a marriage made in heaven!), Rene Weis looking at the Shakespeare's neighbours in Stratford, Charlie Nicholl looking into Shakespeare's London lodgings on Silver Street, James Shapiro concentrating first on a year-in-the-life (1599) and now on all the theories about Shakespeare not really being Shakespeare.

(Actually, the best thing I heard at the talk was an argument against somebody else - e.g. the Earl of Oxford - having written the plays of Shakespeare; basically, if there had been such a conspiracy, Ben Jonson would not have been able to keep quiet about it. So there.)

Anyway, I did contemplate asking the esteemed gents up on their podium to what extent they felt that most Shakespeare biographers basically just say whatever somebody said before. And then illustrating it by pointing out that all biographers insist that Anne Whateley (the woman named in Will Shakespeare's first marriage licence, issued 27 November 1582) didn't exist, but that I've found a will at Worcester County Records Office which proves that she did exist.

I didn't say that out loud, though, probably because there might have been a commotion. How dare anybody introduce any controversial new facts into such a genteel symposium? Prof. Stanley Wells might have had a coronary, for crying out loud!

But oh, I would so love to have shouted out, "Ben Jonson murdered Shakespeare!"

And yeah, I do believe that's the truth. Don't know if I'll blog about it, though. Ought to try and write the book, really.

It's annoying, though. The two experts briefly skirted around the subject of Will Shakespeare's religion in such a way that they might as well have said, "Hmmnn - best not go there!" Which leaves me thinking -

What is the point of a Shakespeare biography? Is it meant to tell us anything about Shakespeare the man? Or is it an exercise in not rocking any boats?

Hilariously, Stanley Wells countered the suggestion that Shakespeare might have been Catholic by pointing out that so much of the documentation about him was connected with the reformed English ("Anglican") Church. But there wasn't any other Church available at the time. Catholicism had been banned. So Wells was basically using the Germaine Greer defence - an argument which is patently senseless and tantamount to saying that so-and-so was in the army and homosexuality isn't allowed in the army, so therefore so-and-so can't have been homosexual ... hardly watertight, as arguments go.

The curse of Shakespeare biography, it would seem, is not the lack of information (there's plenty) but rather the pressure to produce an 'orthodox', meaningless, fundamentally safe and pointless book about a man who was much more exciting (as were his works) than these people want to admit.

We need a revolution in Shakespearean biography, dammit!!! And maybe I'll get to throw the first petrol bomb, given half a chance.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Rebuilding TV Drama

Went to the first of three meetings yesterday, in my old hometown of Birmingham. This was of a strategy group working under the aegis of the Producers' Forum and Screen West Midlands. The issue to be discussed - how to rebuild a sustainable TV drama industry in Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The drama industry in Birmingham was the casualty of a cultural sea-change in British TV. I remember it because I was working on a couple of Birmingham-based drama series when the sea-change happened.

There was a BBC1 drama series called "Back Up". It was an interesting one for me because it was based around a police support unit in Birmingham, and my kid brother was then a member of a police support unit in Birmingham. Which meant that, for a week or so, as part of my research I was effectively working alongside my brother.

The first series went pretty well. That was when management looked on Birmingham as a production centre in its own right, and the Head of Drama at good old Pebble Mill took the trouble to find out what Birmingham and the region had to offer. There was a real sense of an alternative to London, and that BBC Birmingham had just enough independence of outlook to develop and produce its own slate of drama projects.

The second series turned into a bit of a nightmare. The management had changed - and the new lot simply didn't want to be in Birmingham. They hated spending time there. It was like a gulag to them. They couldn't stand being so far away from The Groucho Club. They feared that, if they weren't stalking the corridors of BBC Television Centre or hanging around Soho House, somebody else would get noticed, somebody else would get the promotion.

The atmosphere, the culture, and the quality of the product had changed radically, overnight, and for the worse.

There was no third series. Not long after that, there was no more Pebble Mill. What we got instead was Doctors, a kindergarten for people entering TV. The BBC's weird obsession with medical stuff had meant a conveyor-belt daytime drama, pumped out of Birmingham for the benefit of those who happened to be at home, was the contribution of my great city to the schedules.

You can tell how bad things are: Doctors doesn't even admit it's in Birmingham; Hustle came and filmed here, but only to keep costs down (the viewer was not meant to realise they'd popped up to Birmingham for some shots) and Survivors ... well, that was just crap.

So how do you rebuild an industry that has been destroyed by cultural prejudice rather than economic conditions? Maybe we should be asking other regions who have suffered a similar kind of devastation for what were purely political reasons. But one thing's for sure - for as long as there were senior managers in the media who felt such contempt for the audience that they couldn't bear to be out there where the viewers actually are, there was never going to be a strong drama industry anywhere in the UK.

I mean, just because people are in work - in the mythical town of Holby, or that strange London suburb of Walford, for instance - doesn't mean that the drama side of things isn't on life support.

Maybe the return of a viable TV drama industry in the Midlands will mark the rebirth of TV drama in general. Now wouldn't that be nice?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

What is Britain for?

Any thoughts?

It's a question my agent posed me in connection with my book about Arthur ('King' Arthur, that is - the original, the historical, the one!) "What is Britain for?" What's the point of the book - current subtitle: "The True Story of Arthur and the Fall of Britain" - if we haven't decided what Britain is, and why we should give a damn?!

And at first I thought - "What is Britain for? Well, it's kind of for keeping the wind off Belgium. And for making sure Ireland doesn't get too close to the Continent."

But that was just me being facetious.

Anyway, I've spent about two months now on my rejigged opening chapters to Commanding Youth and I think I'm getting there. The question. What's it all for.

The Romans invaded, but they only took about a half to two-thirds of Britain - essentially, the same part as the invading Angles, Saxons and Jutes would later turn into a place called 'England'.

The rest of Britain got renamed. The tattooed people to the north got called 'Picts' (from pictii- 'painted'). Their Irish equivalent was the 'Cruithne' - effectively, the Picts in Ireland (or, as Diodorus Siculus called them, 'those of the Pritani who inhabit Iris'). The Britons, according to a description given by Claudian Claudianus just five years before the Romans left Britain for good, remained rather 'Pictish' themselves.

So - all of the British Isles, plus a substantial part of Ireland, were once 'British'. Then Rome came along and turned just a part of the territory into 'Britain', the rest becoming somehow alien. And the bit Rome called Britain then got taken over by Germanic immigrants (the English) who were anything but British.

And therein lies the problem of Britain.

Over the centuries, England has tried to govern every part of the British Isles (and Ireland) from London. But England is the odd-one-out, the non-British part of the whole. Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall ... these are aspects of the real Britain, and they have all been imposed upon, trampled, exploited and frequently despised by the controlling English in their southern capital.

So I'm beginning to formulate an answer to the question "What is Britain for?"

It's for uniting against the stranglehold of London and the southeast, and for remembering that Britain existed long before England was invented.

Now I've just got to get that idea past my agent, who's based in ... yes, you've guessed it.


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Whose History?

Well, if you want a good argument, history is the place to be.

Or do I mean 'historiography' - the writing of history?

See, history is a very political subject. I know that. But suddenly, it seems, it's got a lot more so, with our gloriously awful new coalition government in the UK. Michael Gove, a glove puppet posing as Education supremo, has approached a right-wing bigot and asked him to sort out the history part of the schools' national curriculum.

Terry Deary, the author of those Horrible History books (which, let's face it, are a fantastic introduction to history for kids), has already had a go, describing contemporary historians as 'nearly as seedy and devious as politicians.'

He branded Niall Ferguson, the apologist for the British Empire whose idea of history is so attractive to the Tories, 'a deeply offensive right-wing man who uses history to get across a political point.'

Good stuff, eh? But what's this - the rudest man in history (David Starkey) has had a little rant at female historians, saying that they write 'historical Mills and Boon.' (For those who don't know what Mills and Boon is/are, it's low-rent romantic melodrama written by the bucket-load and sold to subliterate women in hospitals.)

Now, I've got my own gripes with historians, thanks to the years I've spent working on Arthur and Shakespeare. Most of them, I've discovered, just repeat what somebody else previously said. Take the Shakespeare biography industry. Endless re-runs of the same stuff, slightly re-worded but nothing new. And what I've found is that, for those who are prepared to dig, there is a wealth of material about Will Shakespeare, mostly untapped, completely ignored by the "historians" who are so terrified of departing from the script that they'd rather publish gibberish than a book about who Shakespeare was.

Or Arthur. Historians insist - against all the evidence - of looking for Arthur in the wrong place and in the wrong century. And when they can't find him there, they throw their little arms up in the air and moan "Then he didn't exist!" When there's a bloody obvious Arthur, perfectly visible, the first on record with that name, surrounded by individuals whose names are uncannily similar to those of the Knights of the Round Table ... oh, but no, it can't have been him, say the "historians". Just sour grapes, really. They wanted to find him in England, failed, and now don't want anybody else to have him.

So it is true - historians are petty, intellectually lazy and committed to telling their version of events regardless of the evidence.

Or they're callow, conformist regurgitators of the accepted 'message' who'll go to extraordinary lengths to avoid touching on 'difficult' or 'dangerous' material.

Many of them are guilty of collaborating in a process of keeping history away from the common people or broadcasting a narrow-minded and orthodox view of what happened.

And then you get the Niall Fergusons and their right-wing followers, making up stupid lies about the BBC pursuing a left-wing agenda and trying to convince themselves and everybody else that the British Empire was the best thing ever.

We can really do without maniacs like that. History is a bitchy enough game as it is, without bringing in the madmen and the arch-propagandists to tell us all what to think.