Tag Archive for: Penelope J Corfield

MONTHLY BLOG 138, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 6: ANNUAL COMMEMORATIVE SWIM ACROSS THE DARDANELLES STRAIT BETWEEN EUROPE AND ASIA, IN THE TRADITION OF LORD BYRON

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Good-looking, debonair, raffish, sexy, attractive to both men and women, a breezy poet, a dog-lover, a radical in his politics, supporting working-class interests at home and Greek independence overseas, and a man with a title – George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), seemed almost too amazing to be true.1 But add into the mix the further pertinent facts that he was chronically impoverished; that he had a deformed foot, which gave him pain and forced him to walk with a limp; that he took to travelling restlessly overseas; that his marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke was unhappy; that many of his affairs were also tormented and short-lived; that there were accusations of incest with his half-sister and marital violence; that, as a result, Byron was considered deeply controversial by respectable society; … and his story was not straightforward.

Today, the adjective ‘Byronic’ continues to reference the concept of a darkly brooding, attractive, flawed genius, whose life, interests, and achievements continue to attract public attention – whilst remaining hard to decipher. His spirit echoes in many a subsequent darkly brooding, ‘mad, bad’, hero in literature and, later, in film.

Immediately after Byron’s death, there was considerable hesitation in England as to how such a life should best be commemorated. Westminster Abbey refused to allow his body to be buried there; and, later in 1834, a statue of Byron, commissioned by his friends, was rejected by numerous august locations (including Westminster Abbey) and was  left in storage for some time. His raffish reputation, with its mix of radical politics as well as unconventional sex, cast a long shadow.

Later, there were campaigns to get a monument to Byron in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, which was becoming an established focus for national literary remembrance. Yet the campaign succeeded only in 1969.

By contrast, Byron became revered in Greece. He died at Messolonghi, at the north-western end of the Gulf of Patras. And he was there preparing to fight, with a rebel band of supporters, to aid the campaigns to liberate Greece from the Ottoman Turks. Such dedication to a ‘foreign’ cause was heroic. To it, Byron devoted his energies and all the family financial resources that he could muster. Today in central Athens, a substantial statue shows Greece as a robed woman, crowning an upright, manly Lord Byron with a palm branch (a Near Eastern symbol of victory and immortality). He has found a home. And the anniversary of his death has been (since 2008) honoured in Greece as ‘Byron Day’.

But the most engaging of all tributes to this distinctive man is an annual group swim. Byron in his lifetime dieted frequently, to keep his weight down; and exercised regularly, being good at horse-riding and amateur boxing. Indeed, for a while, he took sparring lessons with a former prize-fighting champion.

It was open-air swimming, however, for which Byron became especially famed. In May 1810, he swam from Europe to Asia, across the Dardanelles, known in classical times as the Hellespont. It was not the first time that the deed was done – and Byron did not literally invent the pastime of open-air swimming. But his feat in 1810 became infinitely the most famous case, since the classical Greek legend of Leander who swam across nightly to join his lady love, Hero. Byron knew this story of legendary passion – and tried the swim to see if it could really be done. He failed on his first attempt but succeeded on his second.

The Dardanelles Strait/ Turkish: Çanakkale Boğazı is a turbulent stretch of water, with a strong flow and treacherous cross-currents. It now makes a suitable site for the world’s most famous open-air long-distance swimming challenge, held each summer at the end of August.2 Indeed it is the iconic event for the sport. Participants are advised to pre-check their medical fitness; and to have considerable prior experience.

Faint-hearts are thus wise to stay away. But there are plenty who relish the risks. The race distance covers some 4.5km (just under 3 miles), swimming with the currents. While the event is in progress, all shipping lanes are closed. And Turkish coast-guards are on standby, ready to help swimmers who have become too tired or who are being swept off track by tricky cross-currents.

What would Byron think? Hard not to be gratified at being remembered by a challenging and exciting event in which both men and women participate. Very Byronic. And it’s also a swim that crosses historic geographical boundaries – an ecumenical theme with apt resonance for this cultural migrant.

Byron himself wrote poetically about the lure of the sea: ‘There is a rapture on the lonely shore/ There is society where none intrudes/ By the deep Sea; and music in its roar’.3 It was romantic. It was deeply personal. It offered escape for a lonely man with a conflicted life. And he followed the above lines with a personal credo: ‘I love not Man the less, but Nature more’. So this tumultuous stretch of sea at the Dardanelles is Lord Byron’s true monument. ‘Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!’ And it does.

ENDNOTES:

1 A fine introduction to the huge literature on Byron is available in D. Bone (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Byron (Cambridge, 2004). See also N.B. Oueijan, Byron and Mythology (New York, 2020).

2 Becky Horsbrugh, ‘The Hellespont Swim: Following in Byron’s Wake’, The Guardian (6 May 2010): https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/may/06/hellespont-swim-byron.

3 Quotations from G. Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), lines 2-5, 10.

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MONTHLY BLOG 137, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 5: COMMEMORATIVE WALK IN HONOUR OF RADICAL (AND CONTROVERSIAL) IRISH HERO

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Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98),
pan-Irish nationalist,
republican and
revolutionary leader

Continuing the story of through-time links from the Georgian era,1 this BLOG focuses upon a highly significant commemorative walk at Bodenstown (co. Kildare). It celebrates each summer the short life and visionary hopes of the revolutionary Irishman, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98).

He was known as a man of principle and valour. Yet his political views were highly utopian and equally controversial. He hoped to unite his fellow Irishmen, whether Anglican, Presbyterian or Catholic, through a shared commitment to Irish nationalism and republicanism.2 He did not, however, have any practical plans to overcome centuries of religious mistrust and the power imbalance between the contending faiths. (Not an easy task in any era).

In the event, Wolfe Tone chose alliance with revolutionary France. Nothing could be more likely to enrage the Irish Protestant establishment and the British government. When therefore in summer 1798 a radical alliance of United Irishmen launched a rebellion,3 the official response was quick and decisive repression. Wolfe Tone meanwhile sailed from self-exile in France, with a French raiding party, to support the uprising. But he was caught, identified, and convicted by court-martial as a traitor. Soon after, he died in a Dublin prison, the night before he was due to be hung. It may well have been suicide. It certainly was immediate political failure.

However, over time, Wolfe Tone became a paradoxical legend.4 There are today sundry public monuments to him as an Irish patriot. Catholics especially saw him as pioneer of separatist nationalism. That cause was certainly highly important to him. Yet Wolfe Tone’s desire for an associated process of reconciliation between Ireland’s contending faiths was publicly ignored.

It was Catholics who began, a generation after his death, to visit his grave at Bodenstown in tribute. From 1873 onwards (with gaps in some years) the commemorative format evolved into a communal walk. The route starts at Sallins station, thus allowing many Dubliners to attend by train. And the procession makes its way to the Bodenstown graveyard – a distance of about 2.5 km or just over 1.5 miles – where wreaths are laid and a prominent speaker gives an oration.5

Broadly, the atmosphere is both respectful and celebratory. However, there are sometimes tensions between rival political groups. And sometimes even rival processions. Moreover, when in 1934, a radical group of Belfast Presbyterians walked the walk, carrying banners saluting Wolfe Tone, they were met by punches and kicks from the Catholic crowd. This cold welcome was allegedly ordered by the IRA.6 It was not in the spirit of Wolfe Tone.

Co-walking in support of a common cause can promote harmony and rally support. Music adds a festive touch, and helps the walkers to maintain the pace. Flying flags and banners can meanwhile enlighten onlookers. Walks and marches are a flexible and democratic form of public affirmation. They do not require huge funds. Numbers participating may be tiny or huge, depending on the cause, the legal status of public gatherings, and, sometimes too, the weather.

Little wonder then that there are many varieties of communal walks. They range from protest marches, to commemorative walks, to sponsored fund-raising hikes, to organised parades, and on to military and high-school marching bands. Together, these peregrinations constitute a secularised update of traditional religious pilgrimages – which, of course, also continue.7 Within that global phenomenon, Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics have long sponsored rival marches, is a walking hotspot. And the Irish overseas also remain notable community walkers.

The full message of Wolfe Tone’s personal career and his legendary afterlife is, however, a sombre one. It takes more than goodwill and walking together to achieve real reconciliation between contending groups. Violence and counter-violence generate bitterness and resentments, which can often last for centuries. Reconciliation entails inculcating genuine toleration, confronting frankly past misdeeds, righting wrongs (on all sides), achieving a degree of power redistribution or readjustment, opening economic opportunities for all, and generating pan-community trust and love. Not an easy programme, at any time. Hard to achieve in one divided country (let alone globally). But as urgent today as under the Georgians, as no doubt Wolfe Tone would staunchly insist.

ENDNOTES

1 P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022), p. 390.

2 T. Bartlett (ed.), Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, comp. W.T. Wolfe Tone (Dublin, 1998); S. McMahon, Wolfe Tone (Cork, 2001); M. Elliott, Wolfe Tone (Liverpool, 2012).

3 M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (1982); T. Packenham, The Year of Liberty (1969; repr. 1998); J. de Cazottes, L’Irelande entre independance et révolution: Wolfe Tone, 1763-98 … (Paris, 2005).

4 S. Ollivier, Presence and Absence of Wolfe Tone during the Centenary Commemoration of the 1798 Irish Rebellion (Dublin, 2001); P. Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland: From Wolfe Tone to James Connolly (Dublin, 2016).

5 C.J. Woods: Bodenstown Revisited: The Grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone, its Monuments and its Pilgrimages (Dublin, 2018).

6 ‘Our Feral Tribalism Unleashed’, The Irish Times (2 May 2022).

7 L.K. Davidson and D.M. Gitlitz, Pilgrimage – from the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia (2002).

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MONTHLY BLOG 136, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 4: ENJOYING THE ANNUAL DUCK FEAST

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This BLOG resumes the theme of links between the Georgian era and the present.1 To do that, it takes one remarkable case-history, that of the Wiltshire poet, Stephen Duck (c.1705-56). [Yes, that was his real name] He was the son of an impoverished agricultural labourer. It’s likely that both his parents were illiterate. Yet Stephen Duck not only grew to gain poetic fame during his relatively short life but has been honoured ever since by an annual Duck Feast, held in his home village of Charlton, near Pewsey in Wiltshire.2

Undoubtedly, this convivial event must be the longest-running literary commemoration to be found anywhere in Britain. It is a manifestation of local community pride, as well as a tribute to creative poetic output from an obscure individual, whose merits helped him to rise in the world.

There were many such ‘shooting stars’ from modest backgrounds in eighteenth-century Britain. The expansion of towns and trade (and literacy) provided ample new opportunities for talent. Duck’s career was a classic case study in both opportunities and obstacles.

These Feasts (scheduled in early June) actually began during Duck’s lifetime. They were funded by a gift from a local bigwig, who gave a piece of land to the village in perpetuity. That provided a practical basis for the celebrations, initially confined to small numbers of men from Charlton village. A presiding host, known as the Chief Duck, welcomes guests and gives the toasts, while, over time, the format of the Feast has been adapted.

During the evening, verses from Stephen Duck’s first and most famous poem, The Thresher’s Labour (1730), are read aloud. His poetry has some elements of ornate diction. As a promising youth, he had been given access to the classics of English literature by his charity-schoolteacher and other local worthies. However, the striking feature of Duck’s most famous work was its gritty realism. The Georgian agricultural year relied upon intensive and monotonous manual labour. And, at the height of the harvest, threshing the grain was tough work, continuing unabated throughout a long summer’s day. Stephen Duck recalled the experience:

In briny Streams, our Sweat descends apace,

Drops from our Locks, or trickles down our Face.

No Intermission in our Work we know;

The noisy Threshal [two-handed flail] must for ever go.

Neighbours who toasted the man and his muse were happy to admire, if not necessarily to share, this hard toil. During the eighteenth century, a quiet re-evaluation of the importance of manual work was taking place. John Locke and, especially, Adam Smith explored the contribution of labour to the creation of economic value. And readers in their parlours appreciated verses by poets from varied walks of life, including the newly literate workers.

Duck was thus a portent of change. Another poet from ‘low-life’ was Ann Yearsley (1753-1806), the Bristol ‘milk-woman’.3 She flourished a generation after Duck, with the support of a literary patron. Another example was the little-known James Woodhouse (1735-1820), ‘the shoemaker poet’, who eventually made a living as a bookseller.4 And in the early nineteenth century, John Clare (1793-1864), a farm labourer’s son from Northamptonshire, wrote poems of anguished beauty.5

All found it hard to progress from early success to something more permanent. The one exception was Scotland’s brilliant balladeer, Robert Burns (1759-96), the son of an Ayrshire tenant farmer.6 Financially, he always lived from hand to mouth, never attaining great riches. He did, however, have some ballast from his post as an exciseman [tax collector]. That enabled Burns to pour out his evocative poems and songs – thus mightily extending his audience. Today, he is honoured by the now world-wide tradition of annual Burns Night festivals,7 on a scale far, far exceeding the Duck Feast in Wiltshire.

By contrast, Stephen Duck lacked a steady profession. For a while, he enjoyed royal patronage and a pension from Queen Caroline, wife of George II. Yet, after her death in 1737, his career stalled. Duck later took orders as an Anglican clergyman. After all, there were major literary figures within the eighteenth-century Church of England – Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne being two outstanding exemplars.

Nonetheless, the clerical life did not suit Duck. Quite possibly he found that the social transition from the fields into literary and professional society, without a secure income, was too psychologically unsettling. Stephen Duck was also, in this great age of satire, the butt of robust teasing for his plebeian origins. And his best-known poem was quickly parodied, as The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730) – penned by an anonymous author who called himself Arthur Duck.8

It’s not easy, however, to read another’s heart. Stephen Duck’s life continued. He married twice; had children. It was some time before his career ran definitively into the sands. But, in 1756, he committed suicide.

Ultimately, Stephen Duck became and remained a quiet symbol of social advancement and literary change. He was not the only impoverished Georgian labourer’s son to gain fame. Captain James Cook (1728-79), the global explorer, came from a similar background. Yet, in his case, the navy provided a career structure (and a route to controversy via the mutual meetings/misunderstandings of global cultures).9 Cook’s name is now commemorated in many locations around the world. There is even a crater on the moon, named after him.

Stephen Duck, by contrast, is celebrated in Charlton in Wiltshire, not with a name-plate but, aptly enough, with a Feast. Just what was needed after a long day’s labour in the fields, as Duck had specified:

A Table plentifully spread we find,

And Jugs of humming Ale, to cheer the Mind …

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022); and website: https://www.thegeorgiansdeedsandmisdeeds.com.

2 R. Davis, Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet (Orono, Maine, 1926).

3 A. Yearsley, Poems on Several Occasions (1785; reissued, 1994); R. Southey, Lives of Uneducated Poets (1836), pp. 125-34; K. Andrews, Ann Yearsley and Hannah More, Patronage and Poetry: The Story of a Literary Relationship (2015).

4 [J. Woodhouse], Poems on Sundry Occasions, by James Woodhouse a Journeyman Shoemaker (1764).

5 E. Blunden (ed.), Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself (1974); J. Bate, John Clare’s New Life (Cheltenham, 2004); S. Kövesi, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History (2017).

6 I. McIntyre, Robert Burns: A Life (1995; 2001); R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011); G.S. Wilkie, Robert Burns: A Life in Letters (Glasgow, 2011).

7 PJC, BLOG/ 133 (Jan. 2022), in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

8 A. Duck [pseud.], The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730).

9 J. Robson (ed.), The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 135, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 3: THE SCOTTISH MUSIC OF NIEL GOW

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Close-up of sculptor David Annand’s statue of legendary
Scottish fiddler Niel Gow (1727-1807),
erected in 2020 near his childhood home in
Strathbaan, Perthshire.

At a time of international crisis over Ukraine, it seems heartless to continue normal life. And, in particular, it could seem inappropriate to be writing about something as jolly and convivial as the music of eighteenth-century Scotland’s legendary fiddler, Niel Gow (1727-1807). But it helps to stick to routines, which in this case means posting my monthly BLOG.

Music, moreover, is a mighty medium for expressing the full range of human emotions. Niel Gow, born in Strathbaan, Perthshire, came from a modest background to become feted as a composer and fiddler.1 And, among his output, are some famous laments. Indeed, in the long eras before the advent of the radio, musicians had to be ready to switch quickly in style from sad to jolly, from slow to brisk, from simple to intricate, as occasion required. They provided their listeners with a soundtrack for both daily life and special events.

Gow initially began his working life as a weaver. Yet his manual dexterity and his musicality were, between them, sufficiently notable that he soon began to make a name as a fiddler. (A fiddle is the demotic name for a violin, when the instrument is used for ‘folk’ music). He then won some local competitions – which were taken seriously in Perthshire, a ‘big county’ that cherishes its musical traditions. And, once he found a well-connected patron, Gow was able to work as a professional musician.

James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl (1690-1764), was a successful Scottish politician, who lived down the Jacobite affiliations of his older brother (who lost his title and lands after 1715), and thereafter prospered as a solid pro-Unionist. He called upon the services of Gow to play music at balls and dances, held by the Scottish nobility. Such gatherings were, for Atholl, handy ways of shoring up pro-Hanoverian social networks.

For Gow, such employment was a break-through. It gave him access to a world of Scottish lairds who were ready to pay for his services at their social gatherings. The role of a professional musician was a new and potentially risky one. But he was able to flourish, and continued to do so, long after the Duke’s death in 1764. Gow meanwhile lived simply and brought up his large family in a traditional single-story stone cottage in Inver, near Dunkeld. Outside the village, on the banks of the Tay, is the massive oak tree, where he was reported to sit composing music.2 Yet Inver was also well placed for working trips into urban centres like Perth and Dundee. They gave him access to music publishers – and, via the press, to the wider world.

Scotland’s fast-expanding Lowland economy from the mid-eighteenth century onwards was becoming sufficiently wealthy to support not only the growth of towns, trade and industry but the parallel expansion of a new service economy.3 Musicians were among the emergent new professions. They provided a ‘whole Tribe of Singers and Scrapers’, fitted for ‘this Musical Age’, as one occupational handbook observed, somewhat wryly, in 1747.4 It was in that context, that Gow’s son Nathaniel was able to follow in his father’s footsteps. So he too played and composed for the fiddle.

Especially prominent among the output of Niel Gow were his Scottish country dances. Many are still played at ceilidhs and festive events today. Some were new compositions. Others were rearrangements or ‘borrowings’ (often unacknowledged) from older dance music.5 There was then, however, no stigma attached to such reworkings. Robert Burns similarly adapted older verses and tunes in his own prolific output, which also combined both old and new.6

Their audiences positively relished the consolidation of a proud ‘Scottish’ poetic and musical tradition.7 It brought old legacies into the mainstream.  Any separatist tinge of association with the outlawed Jacobites – supporters of the exiled Stuart kings – was shed, whilst a living cultural heritage was enhanced.

So rich is this updated repertoire that English-speaking audiences to this day continue to enjoy Scottish dances and Highland laments. In part, global enthusiasm was boosted by the widespread Scottish diaspora. Yet music has always had the power to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries.

To honour one notable creator of Scotland’s musical tradition, an annual Niel Gow Festival has been hosted each March since 2004, in the village of Dunkeld & Birnam (Perth & Kinross). The next will be held on 18-20 March 2022.8 This place is often described as a ‘Gateway to the Highlands’. Conversely, changing the motto, it might also be said that the music of Niel Ross constituted a cultural bridge from the Highlands to the wider world … Let that be a happy portent that out of old conflicts can come sustained peace and fertile creativity.

ENDNOTES:

1 For Niel Gow (1727-1807), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niel_Gow [accessed 28 Feb. 2022]; and H. Jackson,  Niel Gow’s Inver (Perth, 2000). Gow’s first name was sometimes rendered as Neil or Neal.

2 Now a tourist attraction: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niel_Gow’s_Oak [accessed 28 Feb. 2022].

3 D. Allen, Scotland in the Eighteenth Century; Union and Enlightenment (Harlow, 2002).

4 R. Campbell, The London Tradesman … (1757), p. 93. For context, see also C. Ehrlich, The Music Profession in Britain since the Eighteenth Century: A Social History (Oxford, 1985), pp. 1-53.

5 See tunes by Niel Gow, played on his own fiddle, in CD Album recorded by Pete Clark, Even Now: The Music of Niel Gow (Smiddymade Recordings SMD615, Perthshire, Scotland, 1999). And context in D. Johnson, Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century: A Music Collection and Historical Study (Edinburgh, 1984).

6 See e.g. C. Campbell and others, Burns and Scottish Fiddle Tradition (Edinburgh 2000); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1834 (Leiden, 2015).

7 S. McKerrell and G. West (eds), Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition and Policy (2018); F.M. Collinson, The Traditional and National Music of Scotland (2021).

8 For details, see https://www.niel-gow.co.uk.

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Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume, brandishing a bottle of port, his pockets bulging with comic props.

MONTHLY BLOG 134, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 2

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume,
brandishing a bottle of port,
his pockets bulging with comic props.

Well, here is an unusual Georgian celebration but a congenial one. As part of the professionalization of many industrial and service occupations,1 the ancient trade of clowning in the eighteenth century came into its own. With population and urban growth, the number of theatres and circuses across Britain also multiplied. They provided evening and holiday entertainments for populations without TVs and radios, let alone without mobile phones and social media.

One who made his name as dancer, actor, comedian and all-round entertainer was Joseph Grimaldi.2 In 1778, he was born in London into an acting family, of Italian ancestry. He began performing as a child. And he threw himself into his roles with great physical energy, getting a number of injuries which took their toll in his later years.

The part that he made especially his own was the clown in the English Harlequinade, which was a theatrical burlesque upon the story of Harlequin and Columbine. Grimaldi was so successful and popular that other clowns were named after him as ‘Joey’. His trademark ‘whiteface’ also became much copied by his fellow artistes.

Grimaldi had the confidence, above all, to develop the art of comic interaction with his audiences. One of his famous catch-phrases was: ‘Well, here we are again’. Remarks of that sort indicated to his audiences that it was ok to sit back and be amused. Backchat augmented the collective sense of community and familiarity. It did not free the clown from the obligation to be funny. But it helped by getting audiences into a good mood – and into a state of expectation. Grimaldi’s clown mask and costume thus gave him a head start.

Nonetheless, there was a certain pressure in performing regularly and being always expected to provoke laughter. Grimaldi, who constantly played the London theatres and also toured extensively, was caught in an all-consuming professional role, calling upon both intense physical agility and a keen sense of social satire. He fused traditional slapstick with an urban knowingness and irreverence. It was a demanding combination; and it was not surprising that, from time to time, Grimaldi fell out with theatre producers – and eventually with his own family. He retired from the stage, reluctantly, in 1823 (in his mid-forties), although he returned for occasional benefit performances. In his last years, he was often depressed, physically ailing, and short of money.

Yet Grimaldi on stage epitomised the joy of unbridled laughter. He became the ‘quintessential’ clown. A sort of secular patron-saint of the role. By the mid-nineteenth century, his comic qualities had become almost proverbial. Oldsters would shake their heads and say: Ah! You should have seen Grimaldi!’

Professional clowns who followed in his footsteps were glad to have such a sparkling role model. In Islington, a small park bearing his name is located just off the Pentonville Road. It lies in the former burial grounds of an Anglican Chapel, where Grimaldi is buried. A new public artwork there is dedicated to him and to Charles Dibdin (1768-1833), the dramatist and theatrical proprietor.

Moreover – and here is the February link – on the first Sunday in February each year an Annual Clowns Service is held in Holy Trinity Church, Hackney, East London. The event has been held annually since the mid-1940s. And it is attended by hundreds of clowns, all in full costume.

What a tribute to the power of memory, to the joy of shared laughter, and to the impact of a pioneering life. Today, there are many brilliant comedians – on stages, in circuses, in print, and on all forms of social media. All praiseworthy, some truly hilarious! Ah! [but] you should have seen Grimaldi!’

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995).

2 H.D. Miles, The Life of Joseph Grimaldi, With Anecdotes of his Contemporaries (1838; and later reprints); A.M. Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian (Edinburgh, 2010).

 

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MONTHLY BLOG 133, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

To celebrate the imminent publication of my book on The Georgians 1, my next set of BLOGs commemorates significant Georgian milestone dates: one for every month of the year.2 No problem for January. It must be Burns Night: Tuesday January 25th.

The hero is Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, the evocative Scottish poet and song-writer (1759-96).3 He fully deserves celebration. Not least for writing the world’s most sung song, Auld Lang Syne, which hymns the poignancy of partings and of affectionate remembrance.4
Rituals at Burns Night suppers include the ceremonious arrival of a special dish of haggis. It contains meat offal (heart, liver, lungs), minced and cooked in a special bag with fillings of oatmeal, onions, suet, and seasoning.5 The degree of ceremony adopted remains a matter of choice. But the grandest ritual sees a Scottish piper in full regalia, playing in a procession, in which the dish of haggis is proudly paraded. It’s then eaten, washed down with Scottish whisky. (These days, too, vegetarian and non-alcoholic alternatives are available).

Annual meetings in Burns’ honour began among his friends, from 1801 onwards – only five years after his death. Other convivial groups began to do the same. Within ten years, a critic denounced the spread of the custom. In 1811, he detected a positive ‘Burnomania’.6 What term would he have to invent in 2022, when there are at least 200+ Burns Clubs globally? In 1885, these were organised into the Robert Burns World Federation (RBWF): its motto ‘Educate – Celebrate – Promote’.7

Clearly, the ‘mania’ has become settled and institutionalised. And it shows no sign of flagging. All the organised Societies host their own Burns Night suppers. But there are, in addition, many gatherings, which are spontaneous and ad hoc local initiatives. Thus the estimated figure of some 2,500 Burns suppers world-wide in January 2021 was probably too low. Meanwhile, an amiable venture from Glasgow University’s Centre for Burns Studies encourages revellers everywhere to share their memories, via an interactive Map.8

What is Burns’ special gift that generates such enthusiasm and loyalty? One component is undoubtedly Scottish national pride in his achievements. The strength of that cultural link should not be underestimated.9 And the Scottish diaspora over the centuries has taken Burns admirers world-wide. Yet it is completely wrong to assume that people from other nations don’t appreciate his work, even if they may need coaching in some of his less easily understood dialect usages. Indeed, the fact that many of his poems are known firstly as songs makes them easily memorable – the heartfelt musical meaning overriding any obscure terms.

Burns is thus a poet and song-writer for all times and peoples. His special gift consists in conveying richly complex thoughts in language of piercing clarity. He is simple but not trite. Loving but not soppy. When he is wryly melancholic, he is not bitter.

Who can resist raising a glass each year to the author of sentiments like ‘My love is like a red, red rose’; ‘A man’s a man, for a’ that!’ ‘O would some power the giftie gie us,/ To see ourselves as others see us’; ‘Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!’; and yet ‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet/ For the sake of Auld Lang Syne’.

All that, and the tribute taps into a tradition that now dates over 200 years. Burns was a Georgian radical who thought that people should be judged on their merits, not by their birth or titles. And his own merit is as radiant today as ever.

ENDNOTES:

1 P.J. Corfield. The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Yale UP., London, 2022), pp. 470: publication date 22 January 2022.

2 Ibid., pp. 389-91.

3 The first biography was published soon after his death by R.H. Heron, A Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1797); a relatively recent one is by R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011).

4 [M.J. Grant], Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture (Cambridge, Open Book publication, 2021).

5 Affectionate references to this quintessentially Scottish dish go back to Burns’ poetic address To a Haggis (1786), in T. Burke (ed.), The Collected Poems of Robert Burns (Ware, Herts, 2008), pp. 133-4, setting a trend for familiar commemorations, with successors like W. Foolie, The Scots Haggis [in verse] (Edinburgh, 1821); and D. Webster, The Scotch Haggis: Consisting of Anecdotes and Jests, Curious and Rare Articles of Literature …  (Edinburgh, 1822).

6 W. Peebles, Burnomania: The Celebrity of Robert Burns Considered … (Edinburgh, 1811).

7 Consult website http://www.rbwf.org.uk (accessed 10 Jan. 2022).

8 Report in https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2021/january/headline_769448_en.html (accessed 1o January 2022). The map will eventually be featured on https://www.scotland.org/burns.

9 C.A. Whatley, Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People (Edinburgh, 2016); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1734 (Leiden, 2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 131, REMEMBERING ADRIAN AGAIN

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Adrian Corfield,
on the South Coast seafront,
not long before his death from lymphoma at the age of forty-four.

Thinking about ‘Being Penelope’ (BLOG/130 October 2021) got me remembering – again – my next brother Adrian (1946-90). We were the oldest two of a close-knit tribe of six siblings. I’ve web-posted my obituary of him already.1 So I am not planning to repeat myself. Instead I am just distilling my thoughts on how bereavement feels, thirty-one years later.

Thoughts of Adrian are woven into my life. They don’t need to come at special moments. He was a happy person, one might say happy-go-lucky. So my memories are usually joyous ones. His smiling face is like a benison.

One fun thing, when we were kids, was our laughing game. It was an enjoyable way of passing the time, if we were confined to home by bad weather (say) on a dank November afternoon. One sibling would be selected to start laughing. The rest were enjoined to keep their faces straight. The test was to see how long the non-laughers could resist. Adrian was especially good at giving a contagious chuckle and making funny faces. Soon we would all be laughing uncontrollably. And if a parent popped in to ask: ‘What’s the joke, kids?’ our glee was redoubled. It was not a game which we played all the time. But it was a great reserve for raising everyone’s spirits on a gloomy afternoon. And shared laughter is very bonding.

Remembering an emotionally close sibling also reminds me of the almost instinctive bonds between children brought up together from the earliest age. There are many people in life to whom I feel warm links. Yet those are all, to a greater or lesser extent, chosen and cultivated during my lifetime. My bond with Adrian was not something that I chose. It just happened, because we were very close in age within an emotionally tightly-knit household. I would not say that I understood all of Adrian’s thoughts, especially as we got older and our daily lives diverged. Yet, when young, I effortlessly understood his emotions, moods and reactions, just as he understood mine. Quite probably twins who are close and are brought up together feel this form of identification even more strongly.

Consequently, when Adrian died, I felt that an entire branch of my specialist knowledge was nullified.  It was a bit like losing an arm or a leg. It’s a shock that always remains a shock. Plenty of other people know me tolerably well, as I know them tolerably well. But no-one now understands my reactions in the instinctive way that Adrian did. It’s not a matter that I go round bewailing. In some ways, it’s quite nice to maintain my adult mystery. Yet it’s still a startling experience, to lose someone who was so close. (And talking with others who have lost siblings, I know that shocked feeling is quite common).

Lastly, as life continues, I am increasingly conscious of one big issue which concerned Adrian greatly. He was a biologist; and, in the 1980s, was already lecturing his friends and family on the importance of maintaining global biodiversity. How right he was; and is!

Today, he would be beside himself with anxiety about climate change. As the urgency of the issue escalates, he would be one of the very many calling for immediate action to halt the process or at least to coordinate global attempts at alleviation. Adrian was not a political joiner. So he never became a member of the Greens, though that was the logic of his position. Today, I am sure that he would be marching with the recent crowds of protestors in London (as in many other international capitals) against the role of the big banks in funding fossil fuel extractions.

Would the failure of the world’s political leaders to undertake serious action during the last thirty years alarm him? Greatly. Would it dent his chronic optimism? Perhaps somewhat, though he would doubtless rally to say that the global emergency will finally force everyone, not least political leaders, to take urgent action. `

And what else? He would echo the brilliantly succinct warning from Greta Thunberg: ‘There is no planet-B’.

ENDNOTES:

1 PJC, ‘Remembering Adrian Corfield (1946-90)’, in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/PDFs/7.4.3-Corfield-Adrian-Memories.pdf. With my siblings, we organise an annual walk in his honour on the majestic outcrop of Beachy Head, near Eastbourne: views are magnificent and larks sing high above.

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MONTHLY BLOG 130, MEANINGS OF BEING PENELOPE

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Fig.1 A swatch of weaving,
illustrating the metaphor for History as ‘Penelope’s Web’
being constantly woven and unwoven by Penelope in Greek myth.

It’s a great name, Penelope. English. Greek. And very international. Recognised everywhere. Can be used in long majestic form. Or abbreviated into Penny, Pen, or P. It’s not too commonly used. Yet it’s very far from unknown, either.

In Greek myth, the foundational Penelope is the wife of the travelling Odysseus (Ulysses). She remains at home, weaving and waiting. And rejecting the many suitors for her hand. So the name has connotations of a woman of sexy desirability, who has great patience and perseverance while sticking at her own work, allied to a good knowledge of her own mind, and a degree of cunning in eventually getting what she wants. For me, a most attractive mix.

Perhaps British wives, waiting at home for their husbands to return from the Second World War, had visions of themselves as Penelope? Certainly a considerable number of baby daughters were then given that name. For instance, in 1940 the celebrated actor Penelope Keith was born in Sutton, to the wife of a serving army officer; and in 1946 her fellow actor, the admirable Penelope Wilton, was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Whereas the name has become comparatively less common since then. The much-lauded Spanish film actor Penelope Cruz (b.1974) is a notable exception. And, of course, there are others, especially in Greece. Nonetheless, when I meet fellow Penelopes these days, there is a strong chance that we will all be post-WW2 baby boomers.

Interestingly, in Britain after the First World War, numerous baby girls were named ‘Irene’ – meaning peace. My mother (b.1919) was one of them. So it obviously seemed natural to her, after yet another grinding war, to reach for an expressive Greek name. During the fighting, she worked on the home front, deciphering captured letters for Military Intelligence, and dodging incendiary bombs on London. But her memories were chiefly of the anxiety of waiting for my father to return from active service in North Africa and Italy. So Penelope!

As a youngster, I was invariably known as Penny – and was happy enough to be teased about turning up like a ‘bad penny’; or, when I was naughty, being called ‘penny dreadful’. Such usages are broadly affectionate. And, with a long name in reserve, I never felt purely defined by the diminutive form.

Moreover, as I began to teach and then to publish, I realised the great advantage of having a public persona, which I can use alongside my private identity. These days I use Penelope daily – and some people address me only by that name. I positively enjoy it, though I would not have done when younger.

Furthermore, there is one metaphorical usage, which I do especially relish. The term ‘Penelope’s web’ refers originally to the shroud that the mythic Penelope weaves daily and unpicks secretly by night – thereby delaying a decision as to which of her suitors to choose. (They were not very bright and failed to see through her ruse, which she sustained for years). Penelope’s web can therefore simply refer to a major work which is always in progress and never done. (Ouch! Too many authors know that syndrome). Yet it is also used metaphorically for global history. That is a colossal work, which is always in progress, always being unpicked by critical historians, and then rewoven by others. As one of that tribe, I am proud to contribute to Penelope’s web.

By the way, I don’t feel any proprietorial interest over any other aspects of the mythology, though I admire both the academic deliberations1 and the contemporary retellings.2 Did Penelope secretly have sex with all 108 of the faithful suitors, giving birth to an illegitimate son Pan? (as some versions suggest). I don’t know and don’t mind one way or the other. Did Penelope look on with blood-thirsty glee when Odysseus/Ulysses returned and slaughtered all the importunate suitors and her twelve loyal handmaids as well?3 I never knew about such details as a child, so had no idea that there were moral complexities in the story (as in global history, of course). To me, Penelope was/is simply a name of serenity and potency.

But I did discover, with time, one complexity of my own. From childhood, I was trained to write my short name as ‘Pene’: literally one half of Penelope. I view ‘Penny’ as a close variant, but not actually referring to me. However, then I met some Spaniards. They were highly excited to meet a woman named ‘Penis’. For a while, I simply laughed. After all, plenty of men manage with the penile nick-names: ‘Dick’, ‘John Thomas, or ‘Johnson’, without exciting wild mirth. However, in my case the cross-gender dimension seemed to be too much. Soon I got bored with the kerfuffle, especially as my range of international contacts grew. Now I try to keep ‘Pene’ strictly for use between very old friends and family. I sign emails with the initial: P. And to the wider world, I’m very happily known as Penelope – a lovely Greek name with hidden depths.

ENDNOTES:

1 See e.g. M.A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton, NJ, 1991); M. Janda, Odysseus und Penelope: Mythos und Namen (Innsbruck, 2015).

2 See esp. M. Atwood, The Penelopiad (2007).

3 Christopher Rush’s novel Penelope’s Web (Edinburgh, 2015) confronts the dramas and moral dilemmas both of her husband’s twenty-year absence and of his homecoming.

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MONTHLY BLOG 127, World citizens in the twenty-first century are generating an ‘international sphere’ of public opinion, outside and beyond the control of national governments.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Fig.1 Globe in Speech Bubble by Moilleadóir (2009):
from WikiMedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WiktLogo-Bubble-WikiGlobe-red-1-.svg

There is today a growing international sphere of public opinion. It stretches well outside and beyond the control of national governments. It is purely informal; often fragmented; and lacking direct power. Nonetheless it is an identifiable liberal trend in world history – which is causing particular anxieties for repressive states. As a result, there are also hostile forces, working against the emergent international sphere. Yet the global advance of mass literacy since c.1800 is laying the foundation (in 2015. 86% of adults across the world were able to read and write);1 the diffusion of print continues to fan the fire; and the advent of personal computing, plus especially the invention of the world-wide-web in 1989, has thrown (metaphorically) petrol on the blaze.

Not all, but many citizens are now sharing and debating ideas world-wide. The numbers participating are likely to grow. And, in time, the strength of global public opinion, when united, will increasingly influence governments. To take one example, there may well be international people-power calling for faster action to cope with climate change. Of course, global public opinion will not always agree – any more than does public opinion within any nation-state. But debates are part and parcel of all civic life. In other words, it’s better to have people arguing and voting rather than fighting and killing.

This collective arena has recently been identified as a ‘global civil order’.2 And others detect the operation of an ‘international sphere’.3 That latter terminology is a verbal adaptation from an earlier usage, popularised by the German social philosopher, Jürgen Habermas.4 Writing of western Europe in the eighteenth century, he identified the advent of a new ‘public sphere’ or civic arena, which he contrasted with the ‘private sphere’ of the domestic household. Details of his interpretation are disputed. The two spheres were not as separate and self-contained as Habermas assumed. And his dichotomy between the supposedly ‘male’ and ‘bourgeois’ civic sphere and the supposedly ‘female’ household was not nearly as clear cut either.5

Nonetheless, an adapted version of overlapping, rather than separate, spheres is a helpful one, In the course of the eighteenth century, an increasingly literate population across Britain joined in debating ideas and ideologies in books, newspapers, homes, schools, theatres, market-places, coffee-houses, and debating chambers – all the way from private societies to national legislatures.6 And today the debates are taking places not only in household, local and national spheres but also internationally. There is no need to choose between one civic forum or another: they interconnect and overlap. Individuals can thus share interests not only locally but also with others across Planet Earth.

One criticism of this emergent trend was voiced in Britain in 2016 by the then Conservative premier Theresa May. Those individuals who view themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ are really, she claimed, ‘citizens of nowhere’. She further implied that the would-be internationalists were talking just to other international elites, and were betraying their fellow citizens ‘who live down the road’.7 Some cheered. But many, including some of her fellow Conservatives, rebuked her myopia. People should be praised, not blamed, for taking seriously their responsibilities to the global community that lives on Planet Earth. Today, that point is being underlined, more emphatically than ever, by the Covid pandemic and by galloping climate change.

At this point, it’s worth stressing that the emergent international sphere is not in itself hostile to the world’s governments in general (even if specific governments may be strongly opposed). On the contrary, the global exchange of ideas and opinions depends upon a degree of international order. Chronic armed conflict between rival nations clearly does not promote reasoned discourse.

So the achievements of national governments, from the early twentieth century onwards, have been vital, in establishing an institutional framework for international cooperation.8 It doesn’t always work. Crucially, however, this framework does exist. Key bodies include: the League of Nations (founded 1920), followed by the United Nations (1945); plus Interpol (1923); the World Bank (1944), the World Health Organisation (1948); the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT: 1948), followed by the World Trade Organisation (1995),9 the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare (1949); the International Telecommunications Union (1965), the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (1996) and, not least, the International Criminal Court (1998). Support for such initiatives came from national populations who backed governments in thinking internationally; and these changes in turn encouraged further international thinking among ordinary citizens.

All the ensuing non-governmental global conversations are thoroughly diverse. Some are initiated by individual activists. The role of Greta Thunberg, the youthful Swedish environmentalist, is one remarkable case in point, as she tours the world to highlight the need for urgent action on climate change.10

At the same time, many non-governmental links are sustained by an immense number of global organisations.11 Sporting associations had practical reasons for collating their rules. Leading the way in 1881 was the International Gymnastics Federation. Another leader was the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA; founded 1904). Other groups which think globally include the churches; trade unions; professions; academics; librarians; scientists; doctors; and many specialist occupational groups, such as investment bankers. All these, and many others, run international organisations. One venerable and still thriving body is Apimondia, founded by the world’s bee-keepers in 1897.12

There are also numerous international aid or development agencies (some with government funding; many without). These bodies indicate that the charitable impulse, found within most countries, is now being energetically applied world-wide.13 Significantly, too, global lobbying on contentious global issues has grown ever more vigorous. In 2007, Avaaz, an American non-profit web-based organization, rallies international support to advance a liberal-left (non-ideological) agenda, opposing climate change, corruption, poverty, and conflict – and supporting human rights and animal rights.14 By contrast, some international networks deliberately operate on the dark side: those of criminals. money-launderers and people-traffickers, being prime cases.15 Unsurprisingly, these people do not contribute to the global discourse, but are instead the   subject of earnest international debate, in the difficult quest to curb them.

Another admirable set of organisations are devoted to literary and cultural matters. One congenial case is the Robert Burns World Federation, founded in 1885. Run by enthusiasts, it is a charity that promotes and celebrates Scotland’s most famous poet and song-writer. And it provides organisational links for a world-wide network of Burns Clubs (numbering over 250 in 2013).16 The fact that this Federation has now flourished for well over a century is impressive.

Robert Burns has also proved to be a song-writer for the world. In 1788, he wrote Auld Lang Syne, celebrating friendship and remembrance. Set to a traditional Scottish tune, the song has now been translated into at least 41 languages. Not only is it sung at private parties, but it is regularly performed in many countries at graduations, passing-out army parades, and festivities at the turn of the Old Year/New Year.17 It has thus become the world’s most frequently sung song, giving the international sphere an unofficial anthem. (‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness then/ For the sake of auld lang syne’). Once on a visit in Japan, I gave an ad hoc rendering, only to be asked by my audience, with pleased surprise, how I knew this traditional Japanese song so well.18

These internationalist thoughts have been triggered by my participation in the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies/ Société internationale d’étude du dix-huitième siècle, of which I am currently President.19 This body, founded in 1963, is now nearing its 60th anniversary. It is run on a shoe-string, without any institutional backing, and has 35 affiliated national and regional societies (some more active than others). Together, its membership may be viewed as an update of the eighteenth-century scholars’ ecumenical Republic of Letters.20 And today the Society proudly contributes to the international sphere.

ENDNOTES:

1 See variously D. Vincent, The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe (Cambridge, 2020); M. Roser and E. Otriz-Ospina, Literacy (2013) in website: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.

2 See D. Laqua, W. Van Acker and C. Verbruggen (eds), International Associations and Global Civil Society: Histories of the Union of International Associations (2019).

3 See two recent book titles: B. Winter and L. Sorbera, Contending Legitimacy in World Politics: The State, Civil Society and the International Sphere in Twenty-First Century Politics (2018); and C.R. Alexander, Frontiers of Public Diplomacy: Hegemony, Morality and Power in the International Sphere (2021).

4 See J. Habermas, Strukturwandel der Bürgerlichen Öffentlichkeit (1963), in 4th edn. (Neuwied, 1969), transl. as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1989). p. 40.

5 For one pertinent critique among many, see J.A. Downie, ‘The Myth of the Bourgeois Public Sphere’, in C. Wall (ed.), A Concise Companion to the Restoration and Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 2004), pp. 58-79.

6 See e.g. H. Barker, Newspapers, Politics and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford, 1998); H. Kerr, D. Lemmings and R. Phiddian, Passions, Sympathy and Print Culture: Public Opinion and Emotional Authenticity in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Basingstoke, 2015); and M. Ellis (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Coffee-House Culture, Vols. 1-4 (2017).

7 For the full text of Theresa May’s speech to Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016, see The Spectator: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/full-text-theresa-may-s-conference-speech.

8 See e.g. I. Trauschweizer, Temple of Peace: International Cooperation and Stability since 1945 (Athens, Ohio, 2021); and meditations on future prospects by D.R. Kelley, Understanding a Changing World: The Alternative Futures of the International System (Lanham, Md, 2021).

9 B. Spiesshofer, Responsible Enterprise: The Emergence of a Global Economic Order (Munich and Oxford, 2018).

10 See A. Chapman, Greta Thunberg and the Climate Crisis (2020), and a detailed summary, covering her achievements, her school-fellow colleagues, and her critics, in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Thunberg.

11 Listed in Laqua, Van Acker and Verbruggen (eds), International Associations. as cited above n.1.

12 See https://www.apimondia.com/en/the-federation/history.

13 See S. Harland, D. Griffiths, and L. Walker (eds), The International Development Directory (2001); and Directory of International Development and Relief Agencies (2021), in https://www.guidestar.org/NonprofitDirectory.aspx?cat=6&subcat=32&p=8.

14 For details, see https://secure.avaaz.org.

15 See e.g. D.R. Liddick, The Global Underworld: Transnational Crime and the United States (2004); and M. Glenny, McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld (Toronto, 2009).

16 For further information, see http://www.rbwf.org.uk.

17 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auld_Lang_Syne.

18 Translated as 蛍の光 / Hotaru no Hikari.

19 See the ISECS/SIEDS website, hosted by the University of Trois Rivières, Canada:   https://oraprdnt.uqtr.uquebec.ca/pls/public/gscw031?owa_no_site=304&owa_no_fiche=11.

20 Among a large literature, see D. Goodman, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994); A. Goldgar, Impolite Learning: Conduct and Community in the Republic of Letters, 1680–1750 (1995); G. Ostrander, Republic of Letters: The American Intellectual Community, 1776–1865 (Madison, Wis., 1999); J. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (Oxford, 2001); S. Dalton, Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres in Eighteenth-Century Europe (2003); and A. Lilti, The World of the Salons: Sociability and Worldliness in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Oxford 2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 126, Does classifying people in terms of their ‘Identity’ have parallels with racist thought? Answer: No; Yes; and ultimately, No.

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Specimen HC1
© Michael Mapes (2013)

It’s impossible to think without employing some elements of generalisation. (Is it? Yes: pure mental pointillisme, cogitating in fragmentary details, would not work. Thoughts have to be organised). And summary statements about fellow human beings always entail some element of classification. (Do they? Yes, individuals are more than the sum of their bits of flesh and bones. Each one is a person, with a personality, a consciousness, a name, perhaps a national identity number – all different ways of summarising a living being). Generalisations are therefore invaluable, whilst always open to challenge.

Yet are all forms of classification the same? Is aggregative thought not only inevitable but similarly patterned, whatever the chosen criteria? Or, to take a more precise example from interpersonal relationships, does classifying a person by their own chosen ethnic identity entail the same thought processes as classifying them in terms of oppressive racial hierarchies?

Immediately the answer to the core question (are all forms of classification the same?) is No. If individuals chose to embrace an ethnic identity, that process can be strong and empowering. Instead of being labelled by others, perhaps with pejorative connotations, then people can reject an old-style racial hierarchy that places (say) one skin-colour at the top of the social heap, and another at the foot. They can simply say: ‘Yes: that is who I am; and I exult in the fact. My life – and the life of all others like me – matters.’  It is a great antidote to years of racial hatred and oppressions.

At the same time, however, there are risks in that approach. One is the obvious one, which is often noted. White supremacists can use the same formula, claiming their group superiority. And they can then campaign aggressively against all who look ‘different’ and are deemed (by them) be in ‘inferior’. In other words, oppressors can use the same appeal to the validity of group affiliation as can their victims.

There are other difficulties too. So reverting to the core question (how similar are systems of classification?) it can be argued that: yes, assessing people by ethnic identity often turns out, in practice, to be based upon superficial judgments, founded not upon people’s actual ethnic history (often very complex) but upon their looks and, especially, their skin colours. External looks are taken as shorthand for much more. As a result, assumptions about identities can be as over-simplified as those that allocate people into separate ‘races’. Moreover, reliance upon looks can lead to hurtful situations. Sometimes individuals who believe themselves to have one particular ethnic affinity can be disconcerted by finding that others decline to accept them into one particular ‘tribe’, purely because their looks don’t approximate to required visual stereotype. For example, some who self-identify as ‘black’ are rejected as ‘not black enough’.

Finally, however, again reverting to the core question: No. Identity politics are not as socially pernicious and scientifically wrong-headed as are racial politics.1 ‘Identities’ are fluid and can be multiple. They are organised around many varied criteria: religion, politics, culture, gender, sexuality, nationality, sporting loyalties, and so forth. People have a choice as to whether they associate with any particular affinity group – and, having chosen, they can also regulate the strength of their loyalties. These things are not set in stone. Again, taking an example from biological inheritance, people with dark skins do not have to self-identify as ‘black’. They may have some other, overriding loyalty, such as to a given religion or nationality, which takes precedence in their consciousness.

But there is a more fundamental point, as well. Identities are not ideologically organised into the equivalent of racial hierarchies, whereby one group is taken as perennially ‘superior’ to another. Some individuals may believe that they and their fellows are the ‘top dogs’. And group identities can encourage tribal rivalries. But such tensions are not the same as an inflexible racial hierarchy. Instead, diverse and self-chosen ‘identities’ are a step towards rejecting old-style racism. They move society away from in-built hierarchies towards a plurality of equal roles.

It is important to be clear, however, that there is a risk that classifications of people in terms of identity might become as schematic, superficial and, at times, hurtful as are classifications in terms of so-called ‘race’. Individuals may like to choose; but society makes assumptions too.

The general moral is that classifications are unavoidable. But they always need to be checked and rechecked for plausibility. Too many exceptions at the margins suggest that the core categories are too porous to be convincing. Moreover, classification systems are not made by individuals in isolation. Communication is a social art. Society therefore joins in human classification. Which means that the process of identifying others always requires vigilance, to ensure that, while old inequalities are removed, new ones aren’t accidentally generated instead. Building human siblinghood among Planet Earth’s 7.9 billion people (the estimated 2021 head-count) is a mighty challenge but a good – and essential – one.

ENDNOTES:

1 For the huge literature on the intrinsic instability of racial classifications, see K.F. Dyer, The Biology of Racial Integration (Bristol, 1974); and A. Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 2001 edn). It is worth noting, however, that beliefs in separate races within the one human race are highly tenacious: see also A. Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). For further PJC meditations on these themes, see also within PJC website: Global Themes/ 4,4,1 ‘It’s Time to Update the Language of “Race”’, BLOG/36 (Dec. 2013); and 4.4.4 ‘Why is the Language of “Race” holding on for so long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science?’ BLOG/ 38 (Feb. 2014).

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