The academic infighting over the English Civil Wars would seem to be underway again if Mark Kishlansky’s review (LRB, 11 June) of Blair Worden’s new book and Peter Ghosh’s response (Letters, 25 June) are anything to go by. Kishlansky reports that Worden argues the wars were pointless and led nowhere and Ghosh calls Kishlansky’s views ‘bunk and not history’. Few historians would dispute that the Civil Wars of 1640 to 1651 were violent, or that in themselves they ‘led nowhere’. They didn’t ‘stand for’ anything. The point is surely that they had significant consequences in the extreme constitutional, religious, social and cultural crisis of the mid-17th century.
Having said that he can’t say what actually happened, Ghosh proceeds to tell us that the ‘true’ fulcrum of British history is not 1640-60, but 1688, which provides the ‘master narrative’, ‘the received wisdom’, for the next 300 years, and only the Scots, radicals and poets kept alive the importance of the Civil War period (how he must hate John Lilburne, John Milton, Tom Paine and the Chartists).
Here are just a few pointers to suggest that what happened in the mid-17th century does make it a major turning point in British history. First, the crisis of 1640-42 saw Parliament assert the right to determine its own calling and dissolution. That this right wasn’t finally secured then is not the point: it was the principle that effectively stopped Charles I’s absolutist inclinations dead in their tracks – 1688 merely confirmed that against the pretensions of James II. Second, the collapse of the state church in 1640 opened the floodgates for revolutionary religious movements that made nonconformity and religious toleration unstoppable forces in society, despite the backlash of restored Anglicanism in 1660. Was this ‘pointless’? Third, the 1640s saw the beginnings of a free press, championed by Milton’s Areopagitica, and among other things this gave a voice to the political ideas of the Levellers, Agitators and Diggers: the supremacy of natural rights over property rights, equality before the law, universal suffrage, the separation of church and state and the devolution of power from the centre to local communities. All of this was, of course, repressed at the Restoration and even today has not been fully realised. Were these things worth fighting for; were they pointless?
‘Shelley began a stage play to celebrate Charles I,’ Mark Kishlansky writes. Did he really? Shelley was opposed to capital punishment, thought Charles died well, and detested Cromwell, particularly for his behaviour towards the Irish. But he was a republican, and his fragmentary play (in which Charles is shown as combining domestic virtues with weakness and tyranny) cannot be considered a contribution to romantic royalism. In 1819 he described the trial of Charles as ‘the mighty example which … England afforded to the world of bringing to public justice one of those chiefs of a conspiracy of privileged murderers and robbers whose impunity has been the consecration of crime.’
Kishlansky gives the misleading impression that until Carlyle began the rehabilitation of Cromwell in the 1840s, the Civil Wars were not seen as a site of struggle for liberty. If so, one wonders what Hume had been about, arguing so hard that Charles I did not usurp English liberties. With whom was he shadow-boxing? This account airbrushes out the republican and ‘Real Whig’ historians of 1760-1840 such as Catharine Macaulay, Charles James Fox, George Brodie and William Godwin, who dissociated themselves from both Puritan fanatics and from Cromwell, tyrant and arch-hypocrite. Their heroes were the parliamentarians Hampden and Pym, and the intellectual republicans, whom Wordsworth called ‘hands that penn’d/And tongues that utter’d wisdom, better none:/The later Sydney, Marvel, Harrington,/Young Vane, and others who call’d Milton friend’. Vane, in particular, was for them a counterpoise to Charles I, a non-regicide republican martyr of the highest gifts, whose execution by Charles II was an outrageous injustice. Hume’s characterisation of Puritans as so many fanatical Praise-God-Barebones was countered by the discovery and publication in 1806 of Lucy Hutchinson’s Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson, welcomed by the Edinburgh Review as an exemplary portrait of a liberal Puritan culture. A ‘Puritan Revolution’ narrative was well under way before the heroicising of Cromwell supplanted it with an alternative version.
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge
After reading Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on the car, I went back to Ivan Illich (LRB, 11 June). In Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Energy and Equity (1974), Illich explores the way that high-speed transportation for the few (the car driver) disadvantages transportation for the many (pedestrians, bus users, children, the poor). But more important, in view of O’Hagan’s remarks about the apparent freedom the car gives its owner, is Illich’s reminder of the time-cost of car ownership. Once you factor in the time spent earning the money to purchase and run the car, not to mention washing and admiring it (and watching car adverts), Illich calculated that over a year ‘the model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.’ I am sure the first two figures are much higher today, but not the average speed which, as Illich pointed out, is much the same as it is in countries deprived of a transportation industry. More significant for us today is Illich’s concluding note that ‘what distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of lifetime for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.’
When I asked for a car as a teenager, my mother shrieked ‘A bedroom on wheels?’ as she thought about the privacy it offered for intimacy with girls, of whom she disapproved. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay contains much valuable information, yet atop an underlying tone as romantic as a song by Chuck Berry in the 1950s, the Beach Boys in the 1960s, or Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s. In 2009, time spent in the car is the most unpleasant part of most people’s day.
We live in the northernmost of a string of Michigan cities (the emblematic Detroit, then Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Bay City) that were reliant on the automobile industry for their 20th-century prosperity, following the 19th-century booms in lumber and shipbuilding that established them. Now the closing of General Motors factories and the many industrial companies that supplied them has caused a breach in the social contract which some try to heal with irrational Republican Party adherence and stern biblical churches – and purchase of mammoth SUVs and oversized pickup trucks.
My twenties were spent in San Francisco, which at the time had well-funded bus, streetcar, suburban train and subway systems. Who would want to worry about parking, traffic or car theft in a city with so much else to see and do? Finding ourselves now, in mid-life, in a land of long, snowy winters, my wife and I are glad we have our cars but wish we only used them for shopping or travel at weekends. In Bay City buses stop running at 5 p.m., while university and community college classes run until 10. I almost didn’t take the university teaching job offered me when I learned public transport here was so miserly. Cars were responsible for America’s first billionaire (Henry Ford) and a century of prosperity in my state, and car-workers’ unions were responsible for any justice in that wealth’s distribution. But I hope that car use diminishes. Here and everywhere. Especially by me.
Bay City, Michigan
Peter Campbell writes that the men in the Futurist group photograph ‘look like a gloomy delegation of well turned out travelling salesmen’ (LRB, 25 June). Look again. Marinetti is all posture and power-dressing, Severini cuts a bedraggled figure (Marinetti has just paid off his rent arrears), Boccioni with his angled hat is in the leader’s shadow, Russolo inscrutably fixes the camera in his gaze, Carrà is solidly respectable. The Tate Modern show Futurism, which began life as Le Futurisme à Paris at the Centre Pompidou, half-invites the traditional unfavourable comparison with Cubism. The Futurists might well appear as provincials in the European metropolis; not theirs the bohemianism of Montmartre. But the self-conscious attempt in this photograph to fit suits, bodies and postures to a group identity is a clue to the complex and contradictory nature of Futurism. They were busy reinventing themselves as well as art forms that ranged far beyond the paintings that predominate at the Tate Modern show. There was no lack of odious politics but Marinetti’s ideas are too often treated as synonymous with those of all the Futurists. Without looking at the crazy chemistry of the movement it is hard to understand its enormous international attraction for contemporaries across the political spectrum.
University College London
Yonatan Mendel’s use of the transliteration naqba of the Arabic word meaning ‘calamity’ is a solecism (LRB, 25 June). Arabic (like Hebrew) has two k-like consonants. One of these sounds like an English ‘k’ and is transcribed as such. The other is guttural and is normally transcribed as ‘q’. If you consult a good Arabic dictionary you will find that words derived from the root n-q-b are associated with drilling and tunnelling, whereas those derived from n-k-b are associated with mishaps and calamity.
London School of Economics
Polite Russians will sometimes soften @ to sobachka, ‘little dog’ (Letters, 11 June). So Chekhov’s short story ‘Dama s sobachkoi’, sometimes translated as ‘Lady with a Lapdog’, might now be thought of as ‘lady with email’, or perhaps ‘lady with a laptop’. The lovely and too little known Belarusian language calls @ slimak, or ‘snail’. Thus email is also snail mail in this part of the world.
Charles Nicholl claims that Lord John Roxton in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World was based on Colonel Fawcett (LRB, 28 May). While Fawcett may well have contributed to Doyle’s adventurer, the specific details we learn about Lord John’s past tell a different story. He had been, on his own account, ‘the flail of the Lord’ on the Putumayo River in Peru, defending the Putumayo Indians against the murderous excesses of the rubber slavers. The Lost World was published in 1912. In 1910 and 1911 the real-life ‘flail of the Lord’ on the Putumayo, fresh from similar battles in the Congo, hit the headlines and was knighted for his efforts. His name was Roger Casement.
Iowa City, Iowa
I was heartened to read in Chris Mullin’s Diary that Elliot Morley is not short of friends (LRB, 25 June). I do hope that, wherever Mr Morley ends up, he continues to see some of those friends, during designated visiting hours.