I’m fascinated with finding elements of culture that have resisted the force of culture, because I think that many societies retain a socio-cultural core that is resistant to mere events, and drives the society through massive cultural changes with its fundamental structure intact. I have tried applying this idea to east Asian history, and now I’m reading Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, and thinking I see some elements of British history that maybe show the same continuity. I’m quite happy to take Cornwell’s work as definitive historical content, because it’s a fun book. So what continuity do I find between modern British history and the ancient era?
The Essex Dog
In the Arthurian era depicted by Cornwell, the British are fighting the Saxons in Britain. The British occupy Wales, Wessex, and the West Country, while the Saxons have captured Kent, Essex, London and the Southeast. That is, the Saxons are the original Chavs, and the source of the cultural force that divides modern Britain. Just like in modern Britain, on the weekend they teem westward and get into fights with the locals, who have to beat them off in scenes of violence that are just like those you might see in modern London: lines of men with spears locked fighting against chavs. Except in the ancient era, the chavs also had shields: in Arthur’s time soldiers fought in lines of shields locked close together and penetrated by shields, a tactic they picked up from the Romans, and success in battle depended on keeping your wall of shields locked together and disciplined, and beating your enemy on their mistakes.
So what did the Saxons bring to this battle to give them an edge? Huge, nasty dogs that they would unleash on the lines of British warriors, breaking the shield wall. Anyone who has lived in London for more than a week is familiar with the phenomenon of the chav with their nasty dog, a great big fucked up bulldog or some other nasty arse-faced wolf-fucker that they have beaten since childhood and can barely control when they walk it down the street (if they can be bothered putting it on a lead, the anti-social arseholes). These are the dogs whose shit you have to dance around whenever you walk anywhere in London, and woe betide the man or woman who asks the tracksuited “owner” to clean up after their nasty slobbering canine. Reading about a horde of saxons in stinking bear furs, pointing their massive dogs at the British lines and yelling “oi” is pretty much exactly like reading about a Sunday afternoon in Finsbury Park or Tottenham. That, my friends, is continuity in history.
King Arthur and the Scrum
The crucial part of your average Arthurian stoush is the shield wall. Bascially this involves a bunch of tanked-up blokes carrying shields and spears, pushing against each other and sweating and screaming and spitting while the men behind them push them forward and try to force them to break their opponents’ line. Reading this while also regularly watching Rugby World Cup matches I could only really conclude one thing: it’s exactly like a massive scrum, with spears. Every description Cornwell proffers for this battle tactic sounds like a huge scrum. Tonight, watching Ireland play rugby (against Italy) with a fire in their bellies, I found myself imagining the same men draped in wolf fur, carrying spears and shields, coming towards me in scrum-like formation with the intent of beating their way past me to get to my farm and my children, and it was a disturbing idea. Rugby (and all modern ball sports?) struck me then as a formalized version of an ancient and very nasty code … is this also continuity in history?
A Final Semi-Prediction
Like a good Briton, at this point I should stab a slave in the belly and read the splatterings of their blood as they die to get an augury for the coming battle. Alternatively, I could just say that after watching Italy today I have a premonition that Ireland could make the final and maybe, possibly, even win. Their performance against Italy was exemplary and although Italy are a second tier team, they aren’t pushovers, and Ireland have already beaten Australia … and that was not a one-off (I think they did the same thing earlier this year). Their path to the final will involve first Wales (a probable victory) and then England (in a world of off-pitch trouble) or France (who just fell to Tonga and seem to be suffering from severe internal tension). On the other side, NZ’s path to the final should be assured; first Argentina, then either South Africa or Australia. But NZ are famous chokers and a semi-final against SA is the perfect opportunity for them to call on their famous curse, which would set up a SA vs. Ireland final. If Ireland get that far they will have beaten Wales, who almost beat South Africa … so it’s entirely possible.
Of course as an Australian I am supporting the All Blacks, but after they choke I’ll be supporting the underdog (even though I like South African rugby and I really really like Brian Habana). So I think there’s a chance I’ll be cheering Ireland in the final. Who’s with me?!!
fn1: You might say I’m drawing a long bow here, but Saxons didn’t really use missile weapons, so as the Saxons would say, “fuck off!”