19 June 2014

A Thousand Years Ago, Today

by Tom Holland

This is an action-packed overview of an era when the Dark Ages were just becoming the Middle Ages. The author does a heroic job of helping the reader distinguish between the various mailed thugs – Frankish, Saxon, Norse (or Norman) and English – whose unedifying deeds form the basis of the action. Even so, the parade of Ottos, Henrys, Godfreys and the rest tends to blur into an undifferentiated mass as you keep reading. The same goes for the various revolting characters who passed through the turnstile of the papacy at this time, until we come at last to Gregory VII and Urban II, who were, in the terminology of 1066 and All That, genuinely ‘memorable’ (if not very likeable).

The events which form the matter of Holland’s narrative are appalling. The notables of the time nearly all came to power through murder and bloodshed. If they inherited their positions, they were obliged to defend them with their lives. Betrayal was a constant in politics, brutality was the very stuff of daily life, women and the poor were fearfully exploited, and might was indubitably right. The life of a Norman noble, Holland tells us, was one of constant, deliberately courted danger and violence – hunting, fighting, war. It was a kind of artificial selection, a culture designed to weed out all but the strongest, the most capable and the most brutal.

Meanwhile, though, Christianity with its message of peace and humility was also growing in strength, spreading into parts of Europe from which it had long been gone (Spain) or had never been before (Sweden), and commanding such implicit and universal belief that the thuggish nobles who performed these dark deeds were often hysterically guilty about them, constantly seeking absolution from the Church and subjecting themselves to absurd penances. It probably made them worse in the long run.

Aside from the case Holland makes for the sociopolitical effects of millenarianism at the time, I found the book somewhat short on thematic coherence and argument. There is a narrative here about how church and state came to be separate in Europe — the book begins with a ‘preface’ describing the famous confrontation between Henry IV and Gregory VII at Canossa — but Holland doesn’t really pursue the argument as far as he might. There is also a narrative about the effect of Christianity on politics in the Age of Faith, but this, as you might expect, is somewhat incoherent. It doesn’t spoil the blood and thunder, though.

One insight presented in the book stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Like most people today, I've tended to look upon castles as fortified enclosures built for defensive purposes, now outmoded and rather romantic in their associations, their evocation of knightly tournaments and fair damsels and acts of chivalrous derring-do. Holland explains that in fact, the first castles were not defensive but offensive structures — the means whereby local and regional strongmen (or lords, if you prefer) could garrison the lands they seized with hired thugs (or knights, if you prefer), denying the use of the fields and forests to the common people and enabling the imposition of vampiric taxes and expropriations. The lowering wooden palisade (later stone-walled) on the hill was, for mediaeval men and woman, the locus of terror and evil.

Castles, in short, were among the earliest instruments of the process of dispossession and enclosure that, over long centuries, concentrated more and more of Europe’s resources in the hands of fewer and fewer people, until it was halted (temporarily) by the French Revolution eight hundred years later.

05 June 2014

A Cheap, Nasty Cash-In

by Christopher Sandford

I like a good rock bio — Robert Shelton on Dylan, Jimmy McDonough on Neil Young, Keith Richards on himself. I even like a good bad rock bio, like Anthony Scaduto’s poison-pen-portrait of Mick Jagger, or Albert Goldman’s minutely detailed dissection of Elvis.

But this is the pits.

Christopher Sandford appears to have researched his subject simply by reading a lot of newspaper articles and watching a lot of television. Everything he gives us is at least secondhand, more often third-hand. He evidently knows and cares nothing for music: we learn nada about McCartney's working technique in the studio, his amazing multi-intstrumental abilities or his songwriting (except that he knocks them off in minutes and sometimes dreams them, which we knew already) and barely scratches the surface of what we want to know. Barring onstage performances, which Sanderson obviously watched after the fact on video — and which anyone else could watch just as easily — there are no descriptions of McCartney or the Beatles at work whatsoever.

Music apart, Sanderson doesn’t know much about anything else, either. He seems to think Peruvian flake is a kind of cannabis. Many biographical details about McCartney and his associates, including the other three Beatles, are not given precisely as one remembers them, yet no explanation is offered for the discrepancies. The women in Paul’s life remain mysterious. Jane Asher is a cipher; the remarkable mutual affection and interdependence between Linda Eastman and her second husband are described but no attempt is ever made to explain it; Heather Mills is portrayed straightforwardly as a brassy, gold-digging slut — but even here, we are given no idea how a canny operator (and legendary womanizer) like Paul ever came to have fallen for such an essentially unattractive creature.

Early in the book, Sanderson relates a story about McCartney musing over the reams of analysis to which his friend John Lennon has been subjected, and how people all seemed to think they knew John. ‘But they don't know me, do they?’ concludes McCartney. This story is so placed in the book as to present the reader with the implication that, by the time they have finished reading, they will know McCartney. Well, they won’t.

They will, however, have been given the impression — entirely erroneous — that John Lennon was a bit of an also-ran in the Beatles, whose true creative and professional engine was Paul McCartney. This, of course, is preposterous — and pointless. It would not have detracted one iota from Paul’s own towering achievements to have acknowledged the equivalent genius (and undeniable cultural primacy) of his erstwhile creative partner. Though perhaps, considering how Sanderson trivializes the artistic genius of his hero, it is probably just as well.

Still, I must say I did learn at least one interesting fact I didn't know before: Linda’s family wasn't always named Eastman; they took that name after migrating to the United States two generations previously. The original family name was... Epstein.