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.

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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.