Perspectives on truth

It may be a mistake to claim that the notion of truth is uniquely threatened in these days of populist politics, fake news, media bias, conspiracy theories and so on. Against these modern allegations of malign intent and bad faith, there have always been the fierce determinations of the “I know what I know” community: people who are surer of everything than more careful minds are about anything. For them, the camera does not lie; the Good Book tells them all they need to know; and what was good enough for their daddy was good enough for them.

T’was ever thus. Modern technology may give wider publicity today to what can appear to be the genetic credulity of the human species, but history abounds with examples of people being encouraged to believe what they’d be happy to believe without encouragement. They assume that the meanings of words are absolute and timeless (not so); that history does not alter perspectives (it does); and that, most critically, a thing that is true is exactly so for all people in all circumstances at all times (err, no).

One example from history of the importance of perspective can be found in the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, in which year William of Orange arrived on the south coast to depose England’s Catholic king. A skilled communicator as well as an astute politician, he anticipated the challenges of the propaganda war ahead of him given the long tradition of Fleet Street pamphleteers: he brought several printing presses with him along with his 54 warships and 21,000 soldiers.

All in all, it was not surprising that he carried off his “revolution” peacefully while bequeathing to posterity a soubriquet that few today could explain: what precisely was so glorious about it? A parliamentary debate marking the event’s 300th anniversary in 1988 saw English MP Tony Benn conceding its benefits to a small handful of rich, white, Protestant men while it did little or nothing for poor people or women – indeed anyone excluded from the democratic process: so, pretty much everybody.

Those challenges would be met over successive centuries, and marked with great effect on those Fleet Street printing presses mentioned above. Among the giants who were to define the complexion of English radical politics and whose reputations went justifiably global, we celebrate several whose existing statues are unlikely to face toppling: John Wilkes, Richard Cobden, and Thomas Paine among the many.

An amusing footnote to these reflections on perspective: researching this blog brought to light an anecdote of wonderment at someone’s spotting an image of Jesus in the flames of Notre Dame in its dreadful fire of last year. There is no evidence of anyone’s asking how this image might have been interpreted from the other side of the cathedral: a footballer, perhaps, or the Easter bunny. To any charge of blasphemy the obvious riposte is that your author would never imagine seeing the likeness of Christ in a terrible fire, or even in a hot-cross bun.

Flagship of soft power

There are four broad areas of the English economy which remain world-leading, now that we neither make nor mine anything much of note. Two with which we are not especially interested within the context of the Cradle of English are armaments and financial services. A third – the commercialisation of scientific and medical research – is potentially huge for the future economy, and is certainly relevant to the story of Fleet Street given the history of the Royal Society in Crane Court. Inspired by a lecture by architect Christopher Wren, this learned society took off under such luminaries as Isaac Newton and played a significant role over time in establishing English as the lingua franca, as it were, of the global communities of science and medicine.

The fourth area is the Big One, however: generally defined as the “creative industries” — everything from all the performing arts, fashion & design, the fine arts, advertising, computer gaming & app design, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, architecture and city planning. Within this cultural and commercial territory, and given its history in our corner of London, it is with the first of these activities that the Cradle of English takes a special interest. Specifically, we are talking about the future of the British theatre.

These months of lockdown have brought home with a series of resounding thuds the risks inherent in letting theatre languish and wither away. At the same time, we find ourselves contending with a government that is unimaginative even by the standards of governments generally. Not only is it slow to understand the economic significance of a thriving theatre sector to the UK economy, but they are bereft of sensibility to the implications for the United Kingdom’s projection of soft power. Here we are with arguably the world’s leading theatre industry, communicating its creativity, technological acuity, and expertise in the very language that, more than any other, has become the conversational currency of the world.

There are at least two key benefits in preserving our theatre and safe-guarding its future beyond the purely economic rewards. Both of them lie at the heart of the business vision for our Cradle of English: education, and community engagement. The vast potential of the theatre in each of these areas has been evident in the imagination shown by the UK’s drama, dance, and music industries in taking their passion online during lockdown. At the same time, we have had a ghostly foretaste of what we stand to lose over the years ahead in terms of educating future generations and building vibrant and self-sustaining communities.

What the Cradle of English can accomplish in supporting the future of English theatre would do more than provide a boost to the UK economy and a vital component of the country’s soft power toolkit in building relationships with the global community. It would also contribute to the world’s understanding of the optimal role of language in the evolution of culture. It would create a template with which communities everywhere, in whatever language, can apply the wonders of the performing arts to the development of a citizenry that understands and values the interconnectedness of people and planet.

A plague on the old ways

One of Britain’s clever and funnier columnists, Marina Hyde applies her acerbic wit to the Coronavirus pandemic by recalling the Great Plague that descended on London over three centuries ago. Noting the recollection of that grisly time in Daniel Defoe’s memoir written some five decades after the event, she reveals how his “Journal of the Plague Year” presaged our modern peril, her headline proclaiming that “. . . the British way with contagion has barely changed since 1665.”

Parallels are inevitable, given the enduring crookedness of human nature, but there are at least two very good reasons that the excesses of greed and evil back then should inspire famed diarist Samuel Pepys to complain of “the plague making us as cruel as dogs to one another.”

First, Defoe’s “plague year” was but another in a long sequence of such years going back to the Black Death of 1348 – some 40 mass outbreaks occurring in the interim and taking between 10% and 20% of London’s population each time. And second, the lack of plumbing and modern amenities such as we have today, combined with cramped and filthy streets and widespread poverty to make the brutally enforced locking in – what our more genteel age thinks of as “self-isolation” – a terrifying and often maddening experience.

Home working worked better for some than for others. Scarcely had one rather undistinguished Cambridge student collected his degree, he was compelled to retreat to his mother’s house in the country as the plague advanced. There he stayed for two years, reflecting on his interests in calculus, optics, and the cosmic implications of apples landing on his head. When he returned to Cambridge in 1867, Isaac Newton was firmly on his path to greatness as one of the greatest physicists and mathematicians of all time.

London emerged from the plague in pretty good shape too. The city of Pepys refashioned itself with particular energy in Fleet Street: it was here in the 1660s that the first retail banks appeared, underpinning the explosion in printing presses that would drive the Age of the Enlightenment and the country’s political awakening.

And it was in Crane Court, tucked up an alley off the north side of Fleet Street, that Isaac Newton, by then the president of the recently founded Royal Society, was to establish its headquarters through the golden years of the Enlightenment.

There was a catch amidst the glory of London’s rebirth following the years of Civil War and the Great Plague. Just one year after the plague subsided came the Great Fire of 1666, burning from the City of London up to the western end of Fleet Street and clearing away much of the pestilence and grime that had created the conditions in which the history of plague had festered over centuries.

It must be hoped that no similarly catastrophic event is required, as London emerges from its coronavirus challenge of the 21st century, to enlighten the modern city as to the merits of innovative community solutions.

Brexit and the future of English

As though following on seamlessly from the previous blogpost, a recent article in The Guardian asks “Will Brexit spell the end of English as an official EU language?” The article is book-ended with a couple of playfully incendiary rhetorical grenades: an EU official suggesting that “if we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English” – an utterance beyond nonsense as this article argues – and the concluding suggestion that “once Latin was everyone’s second language, it was no longer anyone’s first”.

The Latin reference begs a number of questions, starting with doubts over the definitions of ‘everyone’ and ‘anyone’. Long after it ceased to be the language of the Roman counting house, Latin hung on as a badge of cultural exceptionalism, most useful to the officers of a religion with an evolving need to reverse engineer modern contexts to ancient gospels while keeping the oiks in the street out of any debate.

This mediating power declined rapidly in Europe with the spread of German and English-language bibles in the 15th- and 16th centuries, and now its influence is pretty much the province of playful poets and posturing public schoolboys. But at no point ever did Latin, although an effective touchpaper for a family of modern languages, possess either the commercial power or the political potency of English or Mandarin in today’s world.

A point neglected by the Guardian article, and a vital one ahead of any defenestration of English as “an official language” of the EU, is what language (if any) could supplant it. Advocates for French would cite its influence as the language of the diplomatic salon, at least through the Treaty of Versailles and the negotiations over the League of Nations a century ago. Champions of Spanish would cite its global status in terms of speaker numbers, as second only to English among the European languages, with French a distant third.

But questions of primacy and status will always devolve not to population sizes but to realms of influence of those speakers, usually and broadly concerned with matters of commercial, cultural, and political clout. In this context it is interesting to look at the Times Higher Education University Rankings, which for 2020 lists more than twice as many universities for which English is the primary language, as against those institutions representing all other languages combined.

Intriguingly, the Times list explains its choices by referencing “13 carefully calibrated performance indicators that measure an institution’s performance across teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook” – not at all bad as criteria for any dynamic continent’s designation of an “official language”. The question that the EU might ask itself is: “What do we want to accomplish with the rest of the world?”

As for the United Kingdom, given that it has been punching well above its weight in all of these categories since at least the time of Shakespeare, the Brexit question now must concern the capacity of English to understand and consolidate its soft power potential in an increasingly fractious world.