Miscellaneous Virtues

An unknown book fell on a floor recently with an almighty thud. On picking it up, I noticed that it was a leather-bound history of the Second World War written by Lord Moran (Winston Churchill) that my dad probably picked up sometime. Its appearance, design and weight was so full of its own “epic importance” that one might wonder if its publication was intended to make as dramatic an impact as an asteroid hitting the earth through its singular sense of certainty. But it features no footnotes.

There is a striking contrast between 800 page hardback books “of this kind” and the sensibility of cherry-picking random information through the Internet. Would a thousand random letters from those who experienced similar events be a more illustrative form of storytelling? Why do authors of history books feel a need to encapsulate everything through the writing of one pen? I think it is because of a sense that unless, or until, this is attempted, we do not have the capacity to reflect, absorb and thereby truly understand. I suspect that my own impulse to write history is governed by that instinct, or “belief”, with an infrastructure of footnoting serving to sustain the scaffolding of the endeavour. Yet it is possible to use too many footnotes.

What a relief it is sometimes to read a book with no footnotes. A light but fascinating read recently was Peter Beresford Ellis’ book The Druids, which incidentally has a photo in it of Churchill being inducted into an eccentric clique of English druids during a reputed low point of his career (circa 1908). Ellis tries to divine what exactly did druids do. Maybe I have only skimmed the text, but a question that I do not recall him answering is: how did druids actually become druids? Did they have to do psychometric tests (you can look it up on Wikipedia or Career Portal.ie), as all people applying for jobs generally have to do these days? No, it would seem that there were skills and knowledge (real or imaginary) handed down orally, from generation to generation, implying the existence of some kind of hereditary, professional and exclusionary caste. D’you know: the term “academic freedom” actually means “institutional autonomy” rather than “individual autonomy” (easy to forget that one).

With the possible exception of Alistair Cooke, many a travelogue writer (Manchan Magan is an Irish one that I’ve discovered in the last week) has attested to the substructure of hereditary castes existing in nearly all societies in the world, which may make one wonder if the phenomenon of social pyramids, often associated (in the nineteenth century) with the political construct of aristocracy, have always been underwritten by a kind of innate human tribalism: brutish, mundane, natural “realities” which may co-exist alongside with our supernatural abilities to turn an artificial sun on and off by means of an indoor light-switch and so completely divorce ourselves from the existence of the seasons.

To date, I have not read many travelogue writers but it may be a genre of books that will prove more attractive to me in the future. As any journalist would probably attest, “random” story telling or news feeds are not a recent phenomenon. Occasionally, I hear bits of RTE radio’s “Sunday Miscellany” programme, which has been on the go since 1968, and the brevity of its spoken stories, when they “work”, reminds me of reading interviews with some fiction writers who expressed the opinion that the art of crafting an effective short story was the best form of writing. I remember that idea mostly because I have always been far more impressed by an effective short story than an effective novel. Episodes in life generally do not have a specific resolution and short stories seem to reflect that “reality” of both living and thinking “best”, maybe in the process mirroring the sensibility of improvising musicians, who see life as a collection of fleeting moments, each no greater or more significant than the other and thus no more or less “meaningful”, even if they are only lived in for a moment. Documenting a moment may be a totally miscellaneous yet unsurpassed virtue. But, if so, is the scaffolding of history texts actually an illusion?

Perhaps what one believes regarding that question actually makes a difference between the pursuit and non-pursuit of a specific discipline or “profession”? Order requires a degree of regimentation, even of thought, not merely of effort. But who really wants to be a part of a regiment? A-ha. All I am certain of at this moment, however, is that although I have no intention of attempting to be a druid, I think I would like to own a druid’s hat to add to my collection of thinking caps. Perhaps if I found, bought or designed one by Halloween, the stars may align correctly in the restful garden of a not entirely historical imagination…

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