Stark complexity

I see Starkey was at it again last week.

David Starkey is ostensibly a historian specialising in – oh the irony – the Tudors but seems more intent these days in generating media attention by wresting the coveted rudest-man-in-television-award away from celebrity chefs and lazy back-combed stand-ups back to its rightful place amongst pseudo-academics. Yes: he annoyed me but probably not for the reasons you’d think.

The comments, from last week’s Question Time, that produced the media attention were:

“If we decide to go down this route of an English national day it will mean we have become a feeble little country, just like the Scots and the Welsh and the Irish.

“The Scots and the Welsh are typical small nations with a romantic 19th century-style nationalism.”

Now, as most regular readers will know I am Welsh, and it’s not unreasonable to expect me to be annoyed because, whilst I am not anything like what you would call a nationalist (nor a Welsh speaker), I do identify with my home culture. I am not someone who was just born there; my family is Welsh going back quite a way and Welsh speaking from my grandparent’s generation back. Yet it wasn’t as a Taff I got annoyed. It was as someone who studied history, reads history in my spare time and, indeed, has a passing awareness of the current geo-political map.

The quote was in response to the question ‘should England have a public holiday for St George’s day?’. Wales does not enjoy a public holiday on St David’s day, Scotland does because it has its own parliament (the Welsh National Assembly is not a parliament whatever my countrymen might assert) and Eire is not part of the United Kingdom but a fully independent nation state that naturally has its own bank holidays. Of course Starkey knows this, he is simplifying in order to make a point and because he holds us, the audience, in contempt. We can’t digest complexity.

If Wales and Scotland are feeble little countries so then is England because, just like Wales and Scotland, it is not a nation state. It is one of the countries that makes up the nation state of the UK enjoying its own patron saint (St George) and sports teams and its own share of vocal nationalists. The nation state in which I live is, to give its full name, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Notice there is no mention of England or Wales or Scotland?

The truth is this country was created over thousands of years by many different tribes and emerging fractal kingdoms kicking the shit out of each other, being invaded by Vikings, Irish, Anglo-Saxons and Normans before emerging in its current state. A “United Kingdom” that is actually a “Queendom” and occasional democracy populated by English, Welsh, Scot, Irish, Pakistanis, Hindus, Afro-Brits, Iranians, Iraqis, French, Italian, Serbs, Croatians, Poles – the list goes on. A “United Kingdom” that is so familiar with violent dissent that its citizens chief response to terrorist attack was to go to the pub. It is a dysfunctional, kaleidoscope of cultures banging against each other on a small collection of rocks on the east side of the Atlantic. In short:

We are complicated.

Perhaps it was that complicated nature that led the to the use of the Welsh Not in the eighteenth century and that was still in use into the mid-nineteenth century. A charming practice that involved hanging a piece of wood around the neck of children heard to be speaking Welsh in school until the end of the school day, when whichever poor sod was wearing the wood got lashed. It was such an unpleasant practice that in the mid-nineteenth century government reports into education denounced the practice – in spite of condemning other aspects of Welsh culture. Pesky people blurring the lines again.

Starkey is supposed to be a historian but he seems to have forgotten that history is, at its root, all about people. After all, country isn’t really a collection of borders and land; the nation state is merely a construct of people who share a set of resources based on landmass in order to ensure personal survival through mutual co-operation. History is the record told through recollections and records of events of what went before, people’s stories retold and distilled through the personal bias of the historian or teller but the by-product of people. No people, no history.

People, people, people, you can’t get away from it.

I can hazard a guess as to why Starkey feels the need to be so reductive that he makes himself look like an arse on a regular basis and that’s his weakness in falling for the glass teat’s seductive glow. No, stop – you see? I’m doing it now; I’m guilty of reductive thinking and showing my personal prejudice. It’s not the demon telly. It’s people again. There are a vocal segment of a population (in the sense they devote money, attention and consumption) who crave the simple story: the three act, simple premise, face of a thousand heroes, twenty-four hour news agenda filler, quotable sound bite. Popular media in most of its forms chases this lowest common denominator for the win and that’s all Starkey is doing: trying to get his name and his new series in front of that all-important virally consumptive audience.

It is all about people and, now that I think of it, it’s not Starkey I’m annoyed with. It’s the people that egg him on and – dare I say it – myself for devoting time to him, giving him the attention he craves like the media junky he has become in the drive for ratings.

People are complicated but Starkey is transparent.

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