Philip Whiteley's Blog

September 14, 2012

Lost narratives

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:50 am

I have been utterly gripped by the archaeological dig this week at Leicester, just 70 or 80 miles from my office, and the discovery of a high-status grave below the choir of a friary that had been submerged by a modern car park. It is almost certainly that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England and the last to die in battle, who lost his life at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

The most sensational finding was that his spine was slightly curved with a condition that would have made his right shoulder appear higher than his left. He was not a hunchback, as his opponents and William Shakespeare depicted him, but the indication of some spinal deformity is a thrilling illustration of how political propaganda tends to weave fact and fiction, rather than be pure invention. (Thought: as a skilled horseman, had he lived today Richard would probably have been in the Paralympic show-jumping team).

It is frustrating that there are so few surviving texts from the time, and that much of the history is inevitably the subject of interpretation and speculation. Richard has modern defenders of his reputation, the Richard III Society, who seek to counter the spin of the Tudors and the Bard.

It is even more odd, then, that we rarely revisit convulsive battles from our own times, which many of us can remember, to produce a more comprehensive version of events than the most popular. The industrial and political schisms of the 1970s and 1980s featured collapsing industries, strikes and protest marches and bitterly contested elections. They resurfaced also this week with the damning revelations of police harshness and misconduct at the tragedy of the Hillsborough football ground in 1989. Many observers pointed out that the South Yorkshire Police was the same force that took part in controlling and suppressing protests by striking miners just a few years earlier, and linked the incidents as examples of class war.

What is astonishing to me is that the dominant explanations of these events are almost as limited, narrow and sectarian as the debates over the Yorkist and Lancastrian claimants for the throne in the late Middle Ages.

Margaret Thatcher, who became Prime Minister in 1979 and oversaw the closure of much of the coal-mining industry, resisting a year-long strike by the miners, remains a hugely divisive figure. She is either celebrated as the one who saved the British economy from terminal decline, or demonised as the one who destroyed swathes of industry and entire communities.

An alternative version is that she did neither. These narratives serve the interests of left and right in covering up their own ignominious failures. Many British industries – car building, ship-building, iron, coal and steel – were already in steep decline by 1979. The obvious reasons – too obvious for left and right politicians to accept – were class-based, incompetent management and class-based incompetent trade unionism. There was failure to adapt to new technologies or match Japanese and German competitors on skills and teamwork. Unions preferred pointless militancy to meaningful engagement, and many featured Trotskyite entryists, fired up by the spirit of 1968, whose industrial vandalism was deliberate.

Losers and winners in politics will always argue over which narrative should dominate. But I wonder how many narratives get lost completely.

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3 Comments »

  1. Brilliant post! Don’t they say history is written by the winners? Or did I get that mixed up with Doctor Who…

    Comment by Rachel J Lewis — September 14, 2012 @ 3:08 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for the comment Rachel! I’ve only had a few viewings on this post, but quite a bit of feedback, including in Linked-in. Maybe I’m on to something. Book is out next year … Not sure if Daleks write history: if you’ve exterminated everyone, there’s not much of an audience…

    Comment by felipewh — September 14, 2012 @ 3:20 pm | Reply

  3. ……..and the final sentence in Gone with the wind: “tomorrow is another day”

    Comment by Eric W Smith — September 14, 2012 @ 3:28 pm | Reply


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