You Know Nothing, Angela Merkel

As last week, I looked at the similarities between Daenerys and George Bush, this week I have some thoughts on another unlikely comparison between a Game of Thrones character and a contemporary political figure. No season six spoilers here, by the way, but if you’re not up to date with season five, stop reading now!

When the men of the Night’s Watch stabbed Jon Snow, and left him to bleed to death in the snow in the court yard of Castle Black, it broke many a heart, typically a female viewer’s heart. But the traitors had their reasons. To them he had broken the most sacred of his duties when he let the Wildlings cross the wall and settle in land to the south. They believed their duty was to protect the realms of civilised men from the barbarians to the north. He saw his mission as more universal: to protect mankind itself from a more sinister threat still – the daemonic white walkers and their army of dead.

To Snow, who has experience of that evil force, not to mention a certain sympathy with the Wildlings, the Night’s Watchmen’s hostility to the Wildlings is narrow and self-defeating, born of their ignorance and irrational fears.

On the other hand, the Wildlings have a history of aggression towards the southrons, and a nasty habit of raiding and pillaging. Many will have lost friends fighting the Wildlings. Snow’s steward, Olly, watched his family being killed by them. It’s no wonder he’s the one who lays the trap for his would-be mentor. To the men of the Night’s Watch, Snow’s decision to let the old enemy through the walls, and grant them territory is simply an incomprehensible betrayal.

Back in the real world, there are many who find equally incomprehensible Angela Merkel’s broad welcome to the hundreds of thousands of migrants flowing over Europe’s borders over the last few months. The unspoken code that she has broken is this: that the primary duty of any leader is towards their own countrymen, the defence of a nation’s borders and the survival of its people and culture. By letting in a huge number of migrants, she has put the safety and survival of strangers ahead of her own people’s (and, as her country is the leading country in the EU, that of the continent as a whole.)

But to Merkel and her sympathisers that is the whole point. Her duty – our duty – is to the whole of humanity, not to one section of it. The people crossing the borders of Europe, so this argument goes, are not ‘strangers’ at all, but our fellow human beings, whom we have a moral duty to house and feed – and to let settle in our lands. This kind of universalist thinking is very popular these days, in theory, but only a few Western European nations seem to actually be putting it into practice enthusiastically, notably Germany and Sweden, although not all the people in those countries are quite so blithe about the wisdom of the open borders policy.

In Game of Thrones, whatever sympathy one might have for Olly, even for Alliser Thorne, and co, the principals for which Jon Snow was martyred will most likely be proved right. The Wildlings, after all, will come in useful when it comes to the expected apocalyptic showdown with the White Walkers from the icy wastes of the far north.

Alas, in the real world, things are more complicated. A great number of the migrants pouring into Europe are not, as was previously assumed, refugees from Syria, and a large proportion are fit young males, some of whom have been involved in sexual assaults of the kind made infamous in Cologne on New Years Eve. Among the migrants too, ISIS terrorist cells have slipped into Europe, including some individuals involved in the terror attacks in Paris late last year. We expect more attacks to come, though hope they don’t. Then there are the great long term challenges of assimilating huge numbers of migrants into European societies – and unlike the Wildlings, the real migrants just keep on coming. Against all that, whatever the strength of the humanitarian arguments, it is hard to see Merkel being vindicated the way Snow will be.

Daenerys, Bush and Missions Unaccomplished

George W Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, and Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon-taming heroine of George R.R. Martin’s immensely popular Game of Thrones series are not, on the face of it, very similar. But in the roles that they inherited and the tangles they found themselves in there are some uncanny similarities: they are both inheritors of grand dynasties – Daenerys of the mad king Targaryen, Bush of his namesake and father, George ‘no W’ Bush…

But I was thinking more in  terms of their politics and, depending on how things turn out in Martin’s series, the legacies they leave on their respective planets .

Bush is well known for his foreign policy adventurism in the Islamic world – his removal of the Taliban and Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Both actions were a response to the atrocity of 9/11, the first directly and the second more obliquely and controversially. But they were underpinned by the ideology of neo-conservatism. Neo-conservatives thought (and still think) that American military power should be used proactively to effect good in the world. They also thought that, once the bad guys were dispatched, the people of the Middle East would embrace democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, once the regimes fell, the countries fell into Islamic extremism and sectarian strife, with the US and her allies left unpopular policemen in the area fighting bitter guerrilla insurgencies, whose fighters could easily melt back into the civilian population and wait for the media to document US ‘atrocities.’ The administration’s single biggest mistake in Iraq sprung from their idealism: with the ideologue Donald Rumsfeld as US Secretary of Defence, the decision was made to disband the Iraqi police force and army, who, tainted though they were by association with Saddam, were the one force who could have quelled the disorder during the transition into the new era.

So much for Bush. Onto Daenerys. Having secured an impressive army in Qarth, the mother of dragons, makes her way through Slavers’ Bay. Somewhere along the way she decides that the immense power that she has won should be used to effect good in the world. Against the advice of some of her advisers, pragmatic types more worried about events in Westeros (the West, that is) than the lifves and liberties of those in the East, she decides to free the slaves of those cities. After the initial euphoria, things are not as easy as expected. Slavery, though evil, had given structure to those societies, and with nothing to take its place, people are lost and vulnerable. The fanatical ‘Sons of the Harpy’ fight a murderous insurgency and then melt into the civilian population, endlessly provoking Daenerys into making brutal reprisals. In the book, though not (yet?) in the series, a brutish former slave becomes a tin pot tyrant and leads an army to conquer Daenerys’ power base in Mereen – it seems many of the people she freed decide they quite like violence and servitude after all.

I don’t think Martin set out to comment on US policy; he just seems to have a grasp of the way that reality has a way of undermining idealism. To go by Bush’s experience, Daenerys will not have an easy time, though she seems at least to have a more pragmatic set of advisers.

Those Pesky Huguenots

Huguenots, French Protestants fleeing the bloody religious wars of France in the 16th and early 17th centuries, get a good press as immigrants who settled in England quickly and without trouble. It was a little surprising  then, reading Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, to see Burgess have the poet Christopher Marlowe give the French immigrants a good rhetorical kicking. He is talking to the spymaster Francis Walsingham, who is sending him on a mission to the low countries. For Walsingham, the Huguenots are brothers in faith, and indeed brothers in arms in the great continental showdown between Protestantism and Catholicism. Marlowe, who has lived alongside them, takes a rather dimmer view:
Canterbury [Marlowe complains] is my town and it is infested with Huguenots.
 —Infested, you say infested? They are our brethren in arms, they are of the reformed faith. You do not know of the Bartholomew butchering? You will use another word.
 —Indiscreet, I apologise. But it is only honesty to say that the Huguenots are not liked in Canterbury. They were moved inland from the coast to check their buccaneering. The city is full of them. They have taken possession of the river for water for their weaving. They bring no trade, they have their own bakers and butchers.
 —Would you, Walsingham browed at him, rather have a Catholic Englishman than a French protestant?
 —You try to trick me. But it is true to say that some men of Canterbury are driven back to the secret practice of the old faith because they do not like these Huguenots with their French prayer-books. That is in the nature of how humanity behaves. Blood is thicker than belief.
As if to underline the point that ‘blood is thicker than belief’, Marlowe find that the French he meets in Europe have scarcely more fellow feeling for English Catholic exiles than the Protestant Englishmen do for their French brethren, mocking their plight and making fun of their queen. Religion aside, the French are French, it seems, and the English Are English.
The Huguenots have a bit part in Burgess’s novel, but they are at the centre of Robert Merle’s epic 13 book Fortunes of France series, which Pushkin Press have recently begun to translate into English. The series tells the life-story of Pierre de Siorac, a young Huguenot from the Perigord region of France, as he navigates his way through the bitter religious wars, plagues and upheavals of the 16the century.The first novel relates the story of the protagonist’s father and  brother who made their fortune as soldiers and buy a castle in Perigord with their spoils. Early in the book, visiting a neighbour, they come into contact with a beautiful young woman:
at that very moment a gracious maiden entered the great hall, clothed in a very low-cut morning dress, her blonde hair falling freely about her shoulders… His heart gave a mighty leap at the sight of this white breast sculpted with the grace of a swan, while, for her part, the maiden returned his gaze with her large blue eyes. As he limped forward to exchange greetings with her, Sauveterre caught sight of a medallion on her breast which displeased him mightily.
The medallion is of the Virgin Mary, anathema to these two staunch Calvinists. The boy’s father falls for the woman despite the medallion she wears and her steadfast Catholicism. She gives birth to the protagonist, but the married couple’s differing faith is a constant source of tension, The man’s brother saw it all coming, of course, chastising him gently:
“Would it not have been wiser to marry a woman of your own faith? Though her breast lay underneath her medallion, it nevertheless hid her Catholic icon from your sight.”
It seems blood isn’t the only thing stronger than belief…
A Dead man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage Classics 2010
The Brethren, Fortunes of France Volume 1, Robert Merle, Translated T. Jefferson Kline, Pushkin Press, 2015

The Northumbrian R

When the writer Daniel Defoe travelled north to Tyneside in the early eighteenth century, he commented haughtily on the locals’ pronunciation:

I must not quit Northumberland without taking notice, that the natives of this country, of the antient original race or families, are distinguished by a shibboleth upon their tongues, namely, a difficulty in pronouncing the letter r , which they cannot deliver from their tongues without a hollow jarring in the throat, by which they are plainly known, as a foreigner is, in pronouncing the th: This they call the Northumbrian r , and the natives value themselves upon that imperfection, because, forsooth, it shews the antiquity of their blood.

The sound that Defoe is referring to is the Northumbrian r, or to give it its technical name, the uvular r… Defoe had it about right calling it a gargle. In Defoe’s day, it was spread across Tyneside, Northumberland and northern County Durham, but these days is confined to parts of Northumberland. It sounds somewhat like the French or German r, and I have read some claim that it was brought to the North East by the French Normans who colonised the region and made up the majority of its aristocracy. This is not true – Norman And Medieval French did not, I think, have this feature of speech, which developed at a later date, and in any case, the North East certainly had no stronger a Norman influence than other parts of England and Wales. More likely, it was a natural development of speech, such as happened in Germany, France and Denmark – the difference being that it stuck there because it spread outwards from areas that spoke the prestige dialect of those countries, whereas in England it took root in an outlying region and stayed local.

I must admit, I have rarely heard the Northumbrian r in speech, despite spending quite some time in Northumberland. To hear it in speech, one can always listen to the recordings at the British Library’s accents and dialects archive, a rather excellent project which has tried to record the traditional speech of every part of the United Kingdom. Here’s an example with the Northumbrian R.

You can also listen to the poetry of Basil Bunting, particularly the recording of his long poem, Briggflatts. I am a great fan of Bunting’s poetry – so much so that I named my first blog after the opening line of Briggflatts; nevertheless, I have always had some doubts about his ‘Northumbrian English’. To me, the reading of his great poem owes as much to the grand oratory style of his mentor Ezra Pound than to the spoken English of the North East. He sometimes trills and sometimes gargles his r’s – this may be down to the consonant’s position relative to others, or it may be Bunting’s own inconsistency. Nevertheless, he is an impressive reader, and there is nothing wrong with poetry sounding different from everyday speech.  It is still a poetry that exists as much in the hearing and speaking and the reading… and with its trilled and gargled r’s alike, keeps alive what Burgess might have called the great rhotic (or rhoto-uvular) tradition in English poetry.

The Strange Death of the English R

In one part of Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, the playwright Christopher Marlowe is sent on a mission among the English Catholic exiles in the Low Countries by the spy master Francis Walsingham. As he listens to the speech of an old priest at the English College he starts to notice a subtle defect in his speech:

What he noted in the speech of the speaker was a property that was not of the language of London… Our language is rich in what our orthopeists term the rhotic (I know these things; I was brought up an actor), that is to say our dog sound is a firm roll in words containing the letter r. But this gentleman was weak in it and spoke argument and preacher and Caesar with but a limp tap.
This weak r sound is something that Burgess’s Marlowe continues to notice in the English exiles, and it even goes on to play a role in the plot, as someone’s weak r gives him away as a Jesuit in disguise. I’m not certain what Burgess is implying here, but perhaps it is that the exiles’ pronunciation of the English r has been influenced by being surrounded by louche French speakers, or perhaps by clerical prissiness.

What is strange for a 21st century Englishman to contemplate is that a strong r was once a distinctive trait of English speech, even – especially – of London speech. That certainly isn’t the case today. In most of England – and in many parts of the world that were a part of the British Empire, English is ‘non-rhotic’, with an r only being pronounced when directly preceding a vowel. For some reason, between the late sixteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, the terminal r disappeared from English speech of all classes and most regions. Like most linguistic trends, it started in London and spread outwards. In England, the ‘English r‘ is now confined to the West Country, and a few smaller redoubts such as Blackburn, Lancashire. America, Canada, Ireland and, with its different, more heavily rolled r, Scotland, remain resolutely rhotic.

The loss of the terminal r is perhaps the biggest single change in the character of English pronunciation since the great vowel shift. Its pronunciation, or lack thereof, has a defining effect. A few years ago some academics tried to recreate the speech of Richard the Third as they thought it might have sounded. It sounded, they explained, much the English of the East Midlands as it is spoken today. And it did, a bit, but to the English listener, its pronounced rhoticism gave it an oddly celtic flavour.

Some of the most famous lines of poetry sound very different if pronounced in rhotic English. Here is John of Gaunt’s celebrated speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II with the r’s highlighted that would not be pronounced by most English people:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter‘d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,

That certainly sounds different, though I couldn’t say that the loss of the r‘s detracts from the poetic effect.In other examples, however, something may be lost with the r‘s. Take the second verse of Marlowe’s own A Passionate Shepherd to his Love:

And we will sit upon the Rocks,
Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow Rivers to whose falls
Melodious birds sing Madrigals.

That is an extra four r’s in three lines, and, along with the proliferation of l’s, makes the sound of the lines much more liquid, more trilling, and more imitative of those falls and madrigals of which the shepherd sings.

London English may have been losing its r’s by the late eighteenth century when William Blake wrote, but the intended alliteration of his most famous lines is unmistakable:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night

That burning tiger somehow sounds fiercer and fierier when you pronounce the r’s, no? Although that might depend on how you pronounce them… speaking of which: next post- the Northumbrian r.

Raleigh on his Execution

One of the books I enjoyed over the winter was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, which imagines the life and death of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. His Marlowe is an odd character: quick-tempered, quick-witted, provocative and quick to draw his sword, he is oddly reminiscent of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Marlowe comes across as somewhat sophomoric, but then he was young, and must have been a sharp character to have lived the life he lived; as well as being a prodigious playwright from a fairly humble background, Marlowe was rumoured to be a homosexual, an atheist and a spy for the Elizabethan government.

I preferred another of the historical characters in the book, Sir Walter Raleigh,  – a warm and wily old adventurer, enjoying the company of his comrades while he must guard his back against his enemies at court.The more I read about Raleigh, the less he is the two-dimensional swash-buckler I had previously, rather idly, thought him to be (probably because of the Blackadder episode, in which he is portrayed as a pompous idiot). He was an English renaissance man if ever there was one, one of his many achievements being some elegant and witty poetry.

Perhaps in his glory days, Raleigh was something of a boaster – he surely had much to boast of. But in A Dead Man in Deptford we meet an older, wiser Raleigh. When the experienced adventurer meets the young playwright for the first time, he apologises for his presumption in having written a wry answer to Marlowe’s early lyric The Passionate Shepherd to His Love. (I have blogged on these two poems before, here and here). He asks him to take it as the voice of experience replying to the voice of innocence, rather than a whole-hearted debunking. Marlowe, who we can imagine being a lot less disingenuous than his shepherd, agrees, and they become fast friends.

Raleigh keeps interesting company. He introduces Marlowe into his circle of cultured gentlemen, who smoke, drink and discuss the great questions of the universe, as well as the more pressing matters of court intrigue. Foremost among this group is the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, known to contemporaries as the Wizard Earl, in whose smoke-filled London home, Syon House, the men meet. The Wizard Earl is another interesting character of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: son of the 8th Earl, who had risen against Elizabeth for Mary Queen of Scots and the old faith, he was himself, less an orthodox Catholic, but interested in magic, the occult and all stripes of ancient learning . Playing the more rationalistic foil to Percy, is his friend and employee, the great scientist Thomas Harriot.

Raleigh’s arch-enemy at this time is the rising star in Elizabeth’s court, Robert Devereux, who really is the self-regarding swash-buckling loud mouth of stereotype. A shallower, vainer individual is hard to imagine – as the poetry he left shows (see my post here). Essex was the ageing queen’s favourite at court, jealous of the memory of her older, more deserving favourite, Sir Walter – and himself fighting for prominence with Elizabeth’s more sober counsellors, the Cecils – to whom Marlowe’s sometime employer, the spymaster Francis Walsingham answers. Burgess weaves an interesting plot out of these connections, as the ascendant playwright gets caught up in a power struggle between two (or three) court factions, and his patron.

From these wranglings among court factions, Burgess provides a plausible explanation for Marlowe’s mysterious death in a Deptford pub. It is not clear that the historical Marlowe ever really met Raleigh or Northumberland, but it is entirely conceivable: they too were accused being atheists. Real atheists were hard to come by in the sixteenth century: the term was used rather loosely, as much against occult dabblers, Catholics or various kind of rebels as that very small minority of people who could conceive of – and speak of – a world without a creator. Marlowe, certainly, and Northumberland, perhaps, could be numbered among actual atheists, but with Raleigh we can’t be sure: certain poems he left betray a cynicism towards the claims of Christianity, but this must be balanced against others – notably the sweet love lyric As You Came from the Holy Land, in which a forlorn lover searches for the woman he met on the way home from a pilgrimage to Walsingham. It may be a love poem, but the setting is religious, and, intriguingly, Catholic. It’s provenance is doubtful, so perhaps he didn’t write it, or perhaps he did write it, but in the voice of a pre-reformation pilgrim. At a distance of four hundred years or so, it’s hard to know.

Burgess’s narrative ends, of course, with the death of the playwright, but there is much in the lives of his supposed associates that would make compelling drama. Both Northumberland and Raleigh lived out Elizabeth’s reign, despite the hostility of the Earl of Essex. Elizabeth’s first Minister, Burghley, the elder Cecil tired of the young favourite’s antics at court and made him Governor of Ireland – a great honour, and a poisoned chalice. When Essex failed in his brief in Ireland, he lost the queen’s favour and never regained it. In a desperate attempt to regain his previous fame, he raised a band of rebels to take London. When this was defeated he was tried, convicted of treason and executed. At some point during his downward spiral, he wrote that famously sulky poem.

Raleigh was made governor of Jersey in the channel islands, then, early in the reign of James I, was involved in a plot to put a rival contender on the throne. He was sentenced to death, but reprieved by the King and left in prison indefinitely.

Northumberland met a similar fate. He was thrown in prison in the aftermath of the gunpowder plot. In truth, he hadn’t been involved. Unfortunately, another Percy, one of his kinsmen and employees, was one of the main plotters, and had used Northumberland’s offices in London to gain close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. The Percy family and a long history of rebellion and the attorney general Edward Coke was out to get him, exploiting the earl’s natural shyness and his stutter at the trial. Life wasn’t so bad in prison if you were a celebrity, mind – the earl still held his smoky gatherings of intellectual free thinkers, while Raleigh, for his part, began working on a history of the world.

He didn’t finish because in 1616 he was plucked out of prison by the King, who had been persuaded by some courtiers to let him lead a mission to find the lost city of El Dorado and claim it for the British. The Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Count of Gondomar, was unhappy with this, and Raleigh had to make the not especially realistic promise that no Spaniard would be hurt in the venture. The mission was a disastrous failure, and the English, having been shot at first, had attacked a Spanish outpost. Raleigh returned home in disgrace. Gondomar demanded that Raleigh be handed over to the Spanish for trial and, most likely, execution. James could not agree to the handover, but he agreed to the execution. He, naturally, had no fondness for the old adventurer, and now that Raleigh’s glory days were behind him, he was expendable.This time there was no reprieve.

Raleigh left not one but three poems written on the night before his execution.

Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wander’d all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

A very elegant epitaph, that, and very appropriate to Raleigh’s life, what with the talk of wanderings and stories, for few men had wandered as far and wide as Raleigh nor had such impressive stories to tell. The last couplet with its final ‘I trust’ might be read as a devout confession of faith in God, or a wry expression of doubt.

In his second poem, Raleigh’s mind turns from death in general to the approaching, violent, method of his own demise:

Cowards fear to die, but Courage stout,
Rather than live in snuff, will be put out.

The meaning of ‘snuff’ here is the charred end of a candle wick, which Raleigh thinks better put out than left to smoulder uselessly. This is the warrior in Raleigh speaking, the adventurer on the bough of his ship in hostile territory facing death, though the hostile territory in question is his own England. It’s a simple enough message: if you’re gonna die, be a man about it!’, but it is delivered with relish, and with echoes of Shakespeare. In the context of Raleigh’s life, the epigram has a wider resonance: he had been smouldering away in prison the last twelve or thirteen years before his last mission, which was his finalchance for glory, or a more fitting end, which is what he got, kind of.

He was as brave on the gallows as on the page, calling ‘Strike, man, strike!’ to the waiting executioner.

The last poem is a translation of Catullus. For poets in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the joys of translating and mimicking Roman poetry was to escape briefly from the conventional pieties of the age. In contrast to the first poem, the third betrays no belief in the afterlife. But then, it is Catullus speaking, not Raleigh – perhaps, in terms of faith, he was keeping his options open to the last.

The sun may set and rise:
But we contrariwise
Sleep after our short light
One everlasting night.



A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess, Vintage, 1994

Poems found in The Faber Book of Epigrams and Epitaphs, Ed. Geoffrey Grigson, 1977

Details of the trial of Northumberland are from The Gunpowder Plot, Alan Hynes, The History Press,1994

Details of the last adventures and trial of Raleigh are from The Cradle King: A Life of King James VI & I, Alan Stewart, Random House, and The History of England Volume III: Civil War, Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, 2014