Tuesday, 27 November 2012

History essay: As If There Were No Other Island

It is finished! At last...or at least, a first draft is finished. In other news, I have made a (to my mind) major change to the book, excising the third walk from the Autumn section and expanding the space given to the two remaining walks in size, in order to create something a little more cohesive. If I wasn't so enamoured of the lovely landscape pages in this section, I would consider running both walks together in parallel, one on the right hand page of a spread and one on the left. We'll see if there isn't some possible solution along those lines. But anyway, time now to delve into the past...

As If There Were No Other Island

            As previously mentioned, the Isle of Wight came into existence well within the era of humanity, and indeed, only towards the end of pre-history, sometime between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. Narrowing down when in a more exact fashion appears to be a question no one is much concerned with answering; like most such questions, it also appears to be one people are not interested in asking. To a geologist, used to dealing in eras and eons, a four millennia error margin is fine; to a historian, it seems unacceptable. But it will have to do for now.

When I say the Isle of Wight came into existence, I do not mean the land suddenly came into being, of course; the land that became the Isle of Wight had a long and storied history before then, as the many fossils that continually fall from the crumbling cliffs of the south coast attest. But the land only became the Isle of Wight, a place distinct unto itself, when it became an island, surrounded by the infilling sea. Of course, no one called it the ‘Isle of Wight’ for many thousands of years. They called it ‘Vectis’ before that, and before then…who can tell? There is a long period, up until around the beginning of the Christian era, where, in terms of recorded history, the Isle of Wight does not exist. There are artefacts and structures and pathways and bones on the ground of course, but for those who explore the world through books, there is nothing. Five thousand or more unimaginable years; what might have occurred in such a vast acreage of time, in the narrow confines of the Island’s borders? We can let our imaginations run wild, fill it with anything we wish, and why not? People lived here; surely in that time, the Island must have seen events to rival any of those recorded or imagined by any writer, in impact if not in scope. There must have been births, and deaths. There would have been rivalries, friendships, romances of every kind, betrayals and celebrations. We would expect there to have been hospitality, generosity and merry-making; as well as murder, theft and rape. Tragedies and comedies. Works of art made, battles fought, mighty beasts hunted, great thoughts pondered, dire oaths proclaimed. In short, in this small space, all of human experience, in some form or another, has occurred. All of it unmemorialised and unattested by anything but odd, indeterminate signs that have passed down to us by chance or, in the case of barrows and monoliths, by design. This great first dark age of neolithic, bronze and iron age peoples is, perhaps, the most interesting period of the Island’s history in an imaginative sense, for it is a time of almost illimitable possibility. We can tell stories, in this space of history, that perhaps we could not tell any other time without creating an Island of pure fantasy. After all, who can contradict us? I might say that in the year 2550 BC, around the same time the great pyramid of Giza is being finished in Egypt, a bored shepherd on the land that would one day become Afton Down on the Isle of Wight erected a small cairn of stones that unknowingly echoed that great structure; and that when a sheep knocked it over six years later the next Pharaoh of Egypt happened to die that very night. It is almost certainly not true, but it could be; people have built careers on bolder fancies. 

The Island enters recorded history, cultural tangibility, as a footnote in the works of great authors; first (perhaps) Pliny the Elder, then (certainly) Ptolemy, both Romans keen on extending the dominion of their empire in epistemological as well as geopolitical terms. The first solid reference to the Isle of Wight is instructions on how to get there to conquer it.

"Below Magnus Portus is the island Vectis, the middle of which is in 19*20 52°20."

Though the conquest of the Wight was already long conducted by the legions of the emperor Vespasian, who had finally bought something that ambitiously called itself ‘civilisation’ to the Island at sword-point (this will become something of a theme). It is ten years since the death of a wild-eyed, and wildly influential, proto-communist preacher in Jerusalem. This is the time when the history of the Wight begins to coalesce, to pass from a fancy born of unknowing into a form of reality. Historicity however, is not fixed; the few documentary records of the Island over the next thousand years or so are often of dubious quality, to the modern mind. The concept of history as an academically disciplined, factual enterprise has not existed for very long at all in our present day; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum can be understood as much as literary as scholarly enterprises, rich with inaccuracy, florid with invention, lurid with fantasy and dripping with bias. We can see this in their colourful account of the island’s violent conversion to Christianity in 685; it was the last hold-out of Saxon paganism in Britain. A religion of which barely anything is known, yet which provides us with our names for the days of the week. Along with the death of the last Jutish king Arwald, and the forced conversation and execution of his nephews (who are now saints, despite the fact history does not record their names), Bede imagined a genocide which no physical evidence can support; the Jutish inhabitants, who, either violently or peacefully, displaced the previous Romano-British inhabitants, were themselves violently displaced. A previously independent kingdom subsumed. We don’t know how many times this happened throughout the Island’s history, though we know that this time wasn’t the last.

Christianity came, churches and monasteries. Land was apportioned, divided into strips north to south. The Saxons drew up land deeds defined by perambulations, detailed instructions of how to walk around their perimeters; early prototypes of my own endeavours. It became part of Wessex, its individuality subsumed into a larger historical reality. Over the next four hundred years, as Alfred created a papticularly long-lasting myth called England, the Island endured. Vikings came and went, but only to trade or steal sheep; a few scattered reports of scraps with the local feard, the Saxon citizen militia.

As we become bolder, advancing forward and realise that all history is to some extent a literary enterprise, we realise that the history of the Island and the history of its representation are indistinguishable. The island has existed as a physical entity now, before the true coming of the words, the great crushing wave of history, for much longer than it will afterwards, but in another sense it has not existed at all. The Island is a hollow concept: what is beginning now is its filling in. The meaning of word and place must advance together, as a great comet was said to portend the end of the world.

The Normans, fresh from the shock victory which had erased the house of Wessex, took the island without a fight in 1066, bringing new laws and new lords, but not, surprisingly, a new king. The island became semi-autonomous, only coming under the royal aegis in 1293, when Edward I purchased it from the dying Lady Isabella de Fortibus. It has been alleged that the sale was fraudulent, unconstitutional, the documents pressed into her hand and signed blindly. This was the legal basis for the claims of the Vectis National Party, who campaigned unsuccessfully for the island’s independence in the 1970’s, with much cider, folk music and large rosettes.

No matter whether this sale truly was legal or not, it would not be the last gasp of the island’s autonomy from the rest of Britain. The Island would be a kingdom again, at least in name, when Henry VI made his childhood playmate Henry de Beauchamp king of the Isle of Wight so that he would have equal status with him. This whimsical title lasted only from 14.44 till Beauchamp’s untimely death two years later at the age of only 22. With his passing, the Island settled down as a part of Britain, and settled in to a long era of unquiet obscurity. Despite the narrative of England unconquered, the Island was raided and invaded repeatedly by the French, who sieged indomitable Carisbrooke castle several times and burned the then capital Newtown, creating a historical anomaly that would later lead to one of the most notorious of the rotten boroughs, with the 20 or so voters of the denuded settlement electing not one, but two members of parliament all the way through until the 19th century.

Henry dissolved the monasteries, and used the stones to build castles. The armada sailed straight past. The first tentative stages had been made towards Fortress Wight, designed not to protect itself, but rather the shipping lanes in to Portsmouth and Southampton on the mainland. The rocky and treacherous south coast was its own defence, its ins and outs known only to the smugglers who plied their trade well in to the 18th century. The civilisation of the coast, with lighthouses and other amenities, prompted an even deadlier trade: wrecking. Wreckers would use false lights to trick the navigators of ships at night, bringing them on to the rocks so their cargo might be claimed as salvage. The Island itself was the weapon.

The Island managed to stay largely out of the Civil War. Though up and down the country spittle-flecked puritans preached from Revelations and Matthew Hopkins elected himself Witchfinder General, little concern was given to anything but the usual activities. Local folklore states that, on many evenings, Roundheads gathered in the Wheatsheaf Inn and Cavaliers in the Rose & Crown would exchange insults and drunken pistol fire across St. Thomas’ square, and the islands ghost tourism industry is bolstered by many tragic duels between politically opposed brothers. The island entered the larger stage suddenly, when the fleeing Charles I sought sanctuary and was promptly imprisoned by the Island’s governor at Carisbrooke. Uncomfortable attention began to focus on the island, soon the site of parliamentarian intrigue and royalist scheming. The king was almost offered his crown back in the Treaty of Newport, but a botched escape attempt used up his last chance, and he was taken off to his eventual fate. Everyone on the Island breathed a sigh of relief. Once again, the island seemed to have escaped an Armageddon. It would escape the direct ravages of the world’s conflicts now almost completely until the 20th century, when the Luftwaffe turned its fury on radar stations and dockyards, whilst JB Priestley lost his socialist faith and eulogised a dead idyll of England as England he watched the outrage of its corpse. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The prison at Parkhurst, which held such luminaries as the Kray twins and Peter Sutcliffe, began its life as a barracks, as the Island was used as a staging post for marshalling troops to fight Napoleon. At the same time, the Island was beginning to construct it’s modern identity: a holiday destination and a health retreat. The climate of the south coast was supposedly perfect for rest cures, and would eventually become a centre for the treatment of tuberculosis, at odds with its dark, piratical past. One of the early tourists was John Keats. He was holidaying at Carisbrooke when he wrote:

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

Another early visitor was a slightly frumpy young girl called Victoria. When she returned, 20 years later with her husband to buy a holiday home, she was empress of a quarter of the world. She proceeded to spend half her life on the Island. Vectis had arrived.

With the queen came others. A bewildering cross-section of 19th century figures, drawn here either by Victoria, the already extant romantic connections or a combination of the two. As they arrived, they inevitably attracted more. The island is linked, inexorably, into the intellectual and artistic history of the world by the presence at various times of such diverse figures as Julia Margaret Cameron, Karl Marx, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and Algernon Swinburne. As late as 1910, one could observe the historically preposterous sight of King Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II (all, it must be remembered, cousins via the old matriarch) strolling together along the front at Cowes Week, oblivious to the doom that lay upon them and the nations they purported to represent.

From this literary and artistic flowering, the island progressed into another, yet stranger stage. Though its mild climate and scenic beauty made it a natural place for sensitive Victorian artists to come and seek solace, it is less clear why the isle of Wight became, over the next sixty years (peaking and then suddenly dying in the late 50’s and early 60’s) a centre for research into advanced technology, particularly in the fields of radio and aerospace. Marconi was perhaps the first, building his first permanent radio station at the Royal Needles Hotel in Alum Bay. Then came the radar, the flying boats, the hovercraft, the rockets. For a while, the Isle of Wight was the centre of a Dan Dare vision of Britain’s future as an independent space and nuclear power, technologically equal to the cold war superpowers. I do not particularly mourn the collapse of this mad dream, this last stab at imperial grandeur, but it cannot help but impart something of the air of melancholy that attends the end of all dreams. With these dreams, so too began, in a sense, the death of the Isle of Wight. One of the curious things about the Island is that it is not economically part of the south of England. Although superficially similar to prosperous Hampshire and Dorset, it has more in common, perhaps, with one of the faded seaside resorts of the north. Blackpool on the west coast or Scarborough on the east, both viable candidates for the most depressing place in Britain. The genteel peeling-paint senescence of the south coast resorts carries particular Blackpool whiffs, but it is the particular sort of low-grade despair caused by the withering away of manufacturing industries that gives the Island a particularly northern character. You’ll have to go a long way North of London before you find somewhere with similar levels of economic woe. There is no industry left, no high culture. The grand houses remain, either as tourist attractions or as holiday homes for wealthy overners.  

History is an endless enterprise. The closer in you look, the broader you must go. Endless volumes can be written on the events of a single day; therefore rather than dig myself into a hole, I shall leave my summary here, and we shall move on to the matter of reasons, and of methods.

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