Posts Tagged ‘Britain’

The Hystery of Britain

Posted in General on December 24th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

In 2004 Hollywood released a film on “King Arthur” that purported to be historically accurate. Films on Arthur usually garb him in costumes left over from Henry V productions: a slight discrepancy of 1000 years.

I wanted to see it, but I wasn’t quick enough. The film was a commercial failure; apparently not even the prospect of a tattooed Kiera Knightley in a fifth century halter could lure an audience. This latest version of King Arthur vanished from the theaters to make way for more popular depictions of the Dark Ages: American Pie III, etc.

Now, in Arthurian Legend, the King promised to return. Merlin obviously foresaw cable television. I am one of its addicts and so I finally had the chance to see the Hollywood history of Arthur.

The errors began with the opening credits. The setting is Roman Britain in the year 453. Rome’s legions are guarding Hadrian’s Wall against Pict incursions and Saxon invasion. Someone’s sundial must have been running fast. The Roman legions abandoned Britain 45 years earlier. The Saxons–and the Angles–may have been in Britain around 450, but they first came as hired mercenaries to protect the docile Romanized Britons against the Picts. (Yes, the fox would protect the chickens against cats.)

We then meet Arthur, a Roman aristocrat who leads an elite cavalry unit. The film wants us to admire him for his intelligence, sensitivity and compassion. As a minor concession to accuracy, he does not play the piano or belong to the ACLU. However, he is a personal friend of the British theologian Pelagius.

Pelagius really did exist and, for a fifth century theologian, he seems a very modern humanist. He disputed the idea of original sin, he espoused Free Will and doubted the existence of the Devil. Pelagius even believed that virtue was more important than dogma. Yes, of course, he was condemned as a heretic. He may have been killed; he certainly disappeared. His writings have all been destroyed but we can infer his beliefs from the Church’s condemnation of them.

However, Arthur is his personal friend. The slight problem is that Pelagius disappeared in 420. You’d think that Arthur might have noticed after 33 years.

The film’s choice of languages raises another historical issue. You will be relieved to know that the Angle-Saxons speak English. And why not–they invented it. The Romans write in Latin but speak English–with Italian accents. Perhaps the Romans were being cosmopolitan. However, the Picts speak Celtic–and require subtitles. That morsel of accuracy seems incongruous. Just have Merlin (the Pict leader) sound as if he were in a summer stock production of Brigadoon.

The film ends with Arthur’s triumph over the Saxons. I guess that they were never a problem again.

It is a good thing that I didn’t write the script. I would have had the defeated Saxons gather around a surviving chieftain called Wodenston who would rally them with “You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory — victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival…Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that, if the Saxon tribe and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their second finest hour.

Serfs Up

Posted in On This Day on June 22nd, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

“On this day in 1854, the British Parliament abolished feudalism in Canada.”

But for that, the Governor-General might have had the right to sleep with any bride on her wedding night. However, that would have made an interesting episode on “Anne of Green Gables.”

In fact, Parliament’s act was really meant for Quebec and the French populace. Les Canadiens still maintained a seigneurial system. After its conquest of Quebec, Britain found herself with 100,000 new and less than loyal subjects. Expelling them all would have been impossible. (Acadia only had a population of 7,000–and it was conveniently on the coast.) The British, showing surprising–even unprecedented–tact, allowed their conquered French subjects a generous autonomy.

The day to day affairs in the villes were left to the local chieftains and bullies: the usual cabal of landowners and priests. In fact, these Canadien dignitaries now enjoyed more power than the bureaucrats of France had allowed them. They were able to control and maintain their conservative, seigneurial society well into the 19th century.

That accommodation did keep les Canadiens loyal to Britain. Given their conservative temperament and comfortable arrangement, they certainly were not tempted to join the American radicals in their rebellion against Britain. And the French Revolution and Napoleon would have been abhorrently liberal to them. This was a society where the pulpits and church-run schools equated Voltaire with the Anti-Christ.

By 1854, however, Britain felt that Quebec was ready for the 19th century–or at least the 18th. Of course, Parliament’s noble sentiments required shrewd application, and the Crown played a skillful political game. The Byzantines may have invented the strategem of “divide and conquer” but the British made an art of it. There were two powers controlling the Canadien society; the British would undermine one while embracing the other. Britain’s affection for the Catholic Church would have amazed any Irishman, but it was the official and conspicuous policy in Quebec. The Church would have the first word and final say in local matters. For all practical purposes, a priest was an alderman and the bishop was the mayor.

In view of this accommodation, the Church agreed that it was un-Christian to have serfs. The landowners would simply have to regard their farm workers as better than livestock.

There Will Always Be a Britain and Its Favorite Phobia

Posted in General on June 3rd, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Associated Press
Jun 3rd, 2008 | LONDON — The British prime minister’s dull-as-dishwater image is getting a revamp from an unlikely source: U.S.-based comic book publisher Marvel.

Gordon Brown, who has been in the political doldrums of late and is often described as buttoned down, is depicted in a heroic light in “Captain Britain and MI13,” a new comic that shows the prime minister helping stave off an attack of evil, green-skinned aliens.

The space invaders, known as the Skrulls, have even managed to penetrate the British Cabinet, impersonating at least three Cabinet ministers, but Brown manages to coordinate the ultimately successful efforts to fight them off.

To trap the Skrulls, Captain Britain left bottles of whiskey and bushels of potatoes in the cabinet room. Then the Captain called a meeting and watched how his ministers reacted.

Secretary of State David Miliband didn’t touch the whiskey, although he had some interesting ideas for marketing it. (Perhaps in Captain Britain’s next adventure, he will deal with those sly, olive-skinned aliens.) Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling sullenly drank two bottles of the whiskey, complaining about the quality as he imbibed. (He obviously was one of those dour, red-skinned aliens, the Skots.)

Most of the cabinet members responded to the whiskey in a reassuringly British manner; once they were drunk, they played rugby until they threw up. However, three ministers showed a solicitous interest in the potatoes, and, although holding their liquor better than the others, began singing–quite well, too. Yes, Captain Britain had found the Skrulls.


Posted in General on March 31st, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

At midnight, July 1, 1997, in an elaborate pageant that marked the end of a historical epic, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. Concluding their 156-year rule of the colony, the British departed with pomp and ceremony: splendid uniforms, regimental bands, and formal banquets. It is a British art. However, the Chinese were in business suits, and showed no nostalgia for the Victorian relics. Britain’s Prince Charles and China’s President Jiang Zemin stood on the same dais, the personifications of their countries in this historical act: the old empire was giving ground to the new world power.

Ironically, that was how the history of Hong Kong began. In the early 19th century, however, China was the old empire and Britain the new world power. China had become the relic of a great nation. When Europe was stirring from the Middle Ages, China’s might, culture and wealth were unmatched. In the 15th century an emperor had disbanded the Chinese navy. The outside world could not threaten his empire and had nothing to offer it. His arrogance would become China’s policy for the next four centuries. The Chinese civilization acclaimed by Marco Polo, the culture that invented gunpowder, the printing press and eyeglasses became complacent and stagnant. The Chinese had the first cannons but they had not improved them since the 16th century. Against the encroaching powers of Europe, China could not even defend herself. Foremost of these new powers was Great Britain.

In the 18th century, British ships were plying China’s shores, eager to trade for silk, porcelain and especially tea. This trade, however, was one way. China was selling but not buying. The imperial government regulated commerce, restricting European imports into the empire. Furthermore, China would only accept silver bullion as legal payment. (The Chinese had invented paper money but evidently did not trust anyone else’s.) This trade deficit with China–and the drain on bullion–was undermining Britain’s economy. British merchants, however, eventually found a way to reverse the trade imbalance: selling opium.

Smoking opium was a vice long known to China, and the opium poppy was easily cultivated in British-controlled India. (The local rajahs did not care, so long as the opium was only for export.) A ready supply of the drug increased the Chinese demand for it. In the 1770s, the British were importing 75 tons of opium a year into China; the imperial officials initially overlooked it. By the1830s, the opium traffic had grown to 1400 tons a year. Now, China was running a trade imbalance with Britain; worse, an estimated 4 million Chinese men were opium addicts. Confronted with this crisis, China sought to stop the opium trade.

In 1839 an imperial viceroy confiscated 1200 tons of opium from British merchants. He further threatened prosecution of traders and sailors involved in the drug traffic. The viceroy even wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria, criticizing her for permitting her barbarians to poison the Chinese people with opium. Her Majesty may never have seen the letter, but the British press certainly did. You can imagine the headlines: “Heathen Chinee Insults Our Queen”; “Opium Fiends Call Us Barbarians.” (Rupert Murdoch had his role models.) While the British government could hardly condone the specific opium trade, it could champion the general principles of the Free Market. Furthermore, it would never allow British subjects to be tried by a foreign power, especially one that insulted the Queen. So, for such impeccable causes as free trade, sovereignty and royal dignity, Britain went to war with China.

Britain had a population of 26 million; China had over 400 million people. Yet, it was China that proved hopelessly outmatched. Britain had the best navy in the world and her army was equipped with modern weapons. This conflict, known as the First Opium War lasted from 1839 until 1842 but only because the British were in no hurry. “I say, shall we take Canton this afternoon or would you rather play cricket?” With their unchallenged mobility and superior firepower, the British were free to blockade, raid and conquer at their leisure. In 1841, the British seized a large island a mile off the Southern coast of China. With its deep-sea anchorage this island–Hong Kong–made an excellent base. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanking; the humiliated Chinese basically turned over their ports and customs enforcement to the British, they paid for the confiscated opium, and ceded Hong Kong to its conquerors.

So, you can understand if, 156 years later, China’s President did not seem nostalgic for the departing British. Indeed, if he had a sense of whimsy, he was imagining a different history; with the fleet of Imperial China anchored in the Thames as Chinese merchants exploited the British addiction to tea.