Two Caravans

Two Caravans by Maria Lewycka is about the experience of immigrant workers in the UK. It starts out as a kind of people-trafficking gangster story, before evolving into a romance about two young people from different sides of the Ukrainian train tracks. Overall though, Two Caravans is what you might call a political novel, in the sense that it describes social injustices.

This being a novel, rather than a political tract, we see issues from many angles. As the story unfolds, we learn that people from overseas coming to find work in the UK are much safer and less vulnerable to exploitation if they are in the country legally. Then we learn that if people are working legally they are more expensive to employ. Legislation regarding minimum wage, or health and welfare, will apply to them. By contrast, illegal workers have no such costly protections. This leaves them defenceless and expendable, which in turn makes them attractive to some employers – because they are cheap and easy to get rid of if necessary. The employers of the cockle pickers who died at Morecombe Bay in 2004 are an example. So you end up in a situation where making people illegal, produces a job market for them, which might come as a shock for those of a nationalist bent. The desire to “keep immigrants out” in a twisted sort of way, makes a country more likely to attract desperate migrants seeking work. There are some unfortunate people who actually want to be illegal, dangerous as that might be, because it gives them a better chance of finding a job.

Two Caravans does not provide an easy answer to such conundrums. Novels are not usually a good place to find straightforward solutions to social problems. They are, however, very good at allowing us to experience the world as someone else might see it. There is something about the way a character voice sounds in our head that makes it very immediate. To some degree, we become, for example, a Ukrainian strawberry picker toiling in a Kent field. In the end, a capacity for empathy is the best way to encourage people to act compassionately. You can have rules and regulations, but the union reps and social warriors depicted in Two Caravans do not have all the answers. On top of legislation, or idealistic, progressive efforts, you must have fellow feeling, a sense that I could be in that person’s shoes. This understanding will make us treat each other better. The way in which a novel can cultivate this empathy is an important part of what makes it valuable as an art form.

So, I admired Two Caravans. Point of view does jump around a lot, which can occasionally be confusing. I have to admit to not being convinced by the dog’s point of view. So the dog doesn’t know punctuation, or lower case letters, but does know capitals? Even as a kind of shorthand for a non-human viewpoint, this was a bit odd for me. But that detail aside, by the end of the book I was glad to have seen things from so many angles; yes, even the dog’s. The book is funny, shocking, depressing, intelligent, and is a contribution to people’s understanding of each other in our divided times.

On The Road, To The End Of America

I first read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road at university, and dutifully wrote an essay about its exploration of the idea of freedom. Now, decades later in 2020, I reread the book, wondering how the old road would look after all these years.

Once again I met up with struggling writer Sal Paradise, who describes a series of trips around America in the late 1940s. Sal travels, or hangs out with, a changing cast of characters, none more important to him than Dean Moriarty, a charismatic, hyperactive young man, who lives a chaotic life, moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Reading the book a second time it became clear to me, that Dean is a charming sociopath, who serves as a natural focus of a story about freedom, because rules do not apply to him. A sociopath can ignore rules of the road, of behaviour, of anything. For a while a quiet fellow like Sal Paradise, feeling trapped and frustrated with life, can happily follow in their wake, experiencing a sense of, what seems to be, liberation. But eventually there is a reckoning.

Now in 2020 it seems like the end of the road has come not only for mad, charming, sociopathic Dean Moriarty, but also for the country which idealises his upside-down pursuit of freedom. At one point, Sal and Dean visit their friend, Old Bull Lee – a character based on the real life writer William Burroughs. Sal and Dean do not get political in their road-trip philosophising, but Old Bull Lee takes the idea of freedom and makes it an explicitly political thing.

“His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals.”

On this read through, I found myself thinking that if Old Bull Lee were around today, he would be a gun-toting, NRA supporting, red baseball cap-wearing old man, complaining about government overreach in asking him to wear a mask to protect himself and others from coronavirus.

In 2020, the Dean Moriarty/Old Bull Lee idea of freedom, has truly reached the end of the road. For the long haul, you cannot rely on Dean Moriarty or Old Bull Lee. They act only for themselves. The road has changed, and now more than ever, it requires people to support each other and work together. The world’s most powerful country has always had a tendency to downplay such values. Like travelling with Dean Moriarty, individualistic American society seemed exciting for a while, but now the time of reckoning has come.

This read through of On The Road was poignant for me. It clarified how much the world has changed since my university days. Even as I turned Kerouac’s pages, the America he describes so vividly, fell away in the rear view mirror.

Station Eleven – The Importance Of Art During A Pandemic

In June 2020 a newspaper survey – conducted by the Singapore Sunday Times – asked respondents to rank the importance of various jobs during a pandemic. Medical practitioners came out on top, which was to be expected. But right at the bottom came the job of “artist”, a word which covered the whole gamut of creative industries.

This caused a stir. After all, Neilson Books research quoted in the Guardian suggests that people doubled their time spent reading during lockdown. Spotify saw a 31% rise in paid subscribers in the first three months of 2020. Netflix increased its subscribers by over 15 million during the same period. Given these figures it might seem that artists played an important role in getting people through the lockdowns of 2020.

Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, published in 2014, is a book describing the time before during and after a devastating fictional flu pandemic, which wipes out 99% of the world’s population. The battle for survival portrayed in the book is far more stark than the one we face in the real world of 2020. But if there’s a source of hope amidst this trauma, it comes from art, specifically a peripatetic band of musicians and Shakespearean actors called The Travelling Symphony. Their motto is: “survival is insufficient”.

While the members of The Travelling Symphony are portrayed as humble heroes, the book is not a simple-minded presentation of art as a panacea for life’s problems. Such an easy answer does not exist, just as a cure for the book’s devastating Georgia Flu does not exist. In scenes depicting the Hollywood smart set of pre-pandemic Los Angeles, there’s not exactly a feeling of people living deep and meaningful lives. And yet, in the post-pandemic world, with all celebrity froth stripped away, the Travelling Symphony really is a beacon of hope. This troupe brings music and Shakespeare to people who have nothing except a grinding fight for survival. There are parallels with the life of Shakespeare himself, who had to take his company on a tour of the provinces in 1603, when plague closed all of London’s theatres for a year.

So finally, we have to ask: what exactly does a troupe of travelling players bring to people struggling to survive? It’s with this question that Station Eleven gets really interesting. You could say The Travelling Symphony brings meaning to people. But meaning is a tricky thing. After all, there are deeply unpleasant cult leaders in Station Eleven who find clear meaning in the pandemic, seeing it as divine judgement on sinners, no less. All those who died in the pandemic apparently did so for a reason. By contrast, The Travelling Symphony is staffed by sensible souls who realise that sometimes bad things just happen. They do not try to explain what happened in terms of supernatural purpose. They perform the plays of an artist who is known for presenting conundrums rather than giving easy answers. This is the humane approach of art, the sharing of experience and questions; and if people share their experience, and ask questions together, they are more likely to find answers and meaning as they continue into an uncertain future.

Station Eleven is a gripping, traumatic, ultimately reassuring read. And I’m sure if you gave a copy of the book to the respondents of that 2020 newspaper survey, their answers would have been rather different.

The Maltese Falcon – showing the way, not telling you which way to go

The Maltese Falcon is a detective novel by Dashiell Hammett, published in 1930. Its central character is private detective, Sam Spade, whose version of morality sits somewhere between bureaucratic, box-ticking police procedure, and criminal illegality. The writing style reflects the Spades’s personality, the whole book narrated in dispassionate third person. We are never told about anyone’s thoughts, only seeing what people do, what they look like, and various precise details of their surroundings. If you have ever heard that piece of writers’ advice about showing and not telling, then The Maltese Falcon demonstrates how it’s done. It’s all showing. There is no telling.

With no fancy philosophising of any kind, The Maltese Falcon appears very straight forward, very “hard-boiled” to use the term usually applied to this kind of detective writing. But the thing is, the spare, unfussy nature of the book gives rise to all kinds of thoughtful ambiguities. After all there is nothing in the book to tell you what to think. You are left to draw your own conclusions. Whether it’s the difference between right and wrong, or between what’s important or unimportant, the book unobtrusively leaves you to challenge yourself on these matters.

This sums up why novels are valuable in describing human experience, and why they have a place up there with scientific studies and text books. With their characteristic quality of showing, they tend to open questions up rather than shutting them down, allowing the reader to explore conundrums that are, by their nature, difficult to pin down to final answers.

Stars And Bars – Learning To Live Beyond Nationality

Stars and Bars is William Boyd’s 1984 novel about an Englishman adrift in the United States. The book interested me because it’s about someone seeking their personal identity through nationality. As a way of thinking of yourself, this is an idea I have always been uncomfortable with, and which has caused no end of political trouble in the last few years.

Henderson Dores, the central character, starts the book by not wanting to be an Englishman anymore. This shy, awkward, typically diffident product of an English public school, decides to make a new life for himself in America, taking a job as an art valuer at a New York auction house. But the thing is, he wants to replace his identity as an Englishman with the identity of an American, and that’s where his problems start.

He keeps responding to life in terms of things outside him – allowing his life to be shaped by other people’s desires, or by how he looks in other people’s eyes. This leads to all kinds of tangles, which come to a head when Henderson goes to a decaying mansion in Georgia, to value some paintings which an eccentric collector is ready to sell.

Here, through a series of disasters, Henderson has his identity stripped away. In a telling scene he finds himself back in New York, at night, during a rain storm, with no money, no credit cards, no passport, and no clothes. His nakedness is covered by nothing more than cardboard and plastic wrapping, which he finds in an alley. But ironically he now feels that he fits in as one of the misfit individuals who live around him in the city.

In losing his identity Henderson finds what he is looking for, which is ultimately himself. In the end that is all we have. We can think of ourselves as British, English, American; or we can identify with something like the job we do, but in the end we remain an individual. Henderson is left with very little once all the outside stuff has gone, but I felt that by the end he had the chance to rebuild on firmer foundations.

I found Stars and Bars a clever, thoughtful and funny book. There are sections that made me uncomfortable, but they were part of this idea of losing false identities and seeing through to what is really there. What is really there might not be polite, or dignified, or even acceptable. It’s like a dream where we see all manner of weird and unacceptable visions once the filter of the waking mind has been turned off. And a few descriptions of that type of dream do feature in the book. But, in the end, there is something to be said for the revealing of things that usually remain hidden, just as if Karl Jung were listening with compassion to our shameful dreams and helping us come to terms with hidden aspects of ourselves.

Eurovision – The Story Of Fire Saga

Eurovision, The Story Of Fire Saga, is the new Will Ferrell film about a fictional Icelandic band, making an improbable appearance at the Eurovision Song Contest. I first came across this film in a BBC review. The critic awarded two stars, and said you can tell within two minutes when you’re watching rubbish. I watched the first two minutes and decided that I very much wanted to continue. Why the difference? Was it because the BBC critic was a deep, intelligent and profound cultural commentator, while I was silly, superficial blogger? Well that could be true, but let’s assume not.

I think this film is actually about the indefinability of music. After all, Fire Saga is meant to be a bad band. Lars and Sigrit, after dreaming of Eurovision glory since a young age, have a small following in their Icelandic town, where they are generally expected to confine their set list to one song, called Jah Jah Ding Dong. Fire Saga only reach the Iceland qualifying competition because a last act is needed to fill the quota, and their demo tape happens to be the one an official pulls from a lucky-dip box. Then, their performance, after suffering technical mishaps, turns out to be a disaster. The judging panel regard Sigrit and Lars as a joke, and no doubt could tell in the first few seconds that their songs are rubbish.

Sigrit’s mother now provides her daughter with some advice – give up on Lars, and stop performing with her head, when she should be performing with her heart. This of course suggests that there is something in music which is difficult to rationalise. Music has an unpredictable element to it, and following Iceland’s selection competition, events take a fittingly unpredictable turn. All the Icelandic acts, except Fire Saga are invited to a glamorous party on a boat. The boat then mysteriously explodes, showering flaming body parts down on Lars and Sigrit watching from the harbour. They are now the last act left, and by default have to be Iceland’s entry at the Eurovision Song Contest in Edinburgh.

Once they arrive in Edinburgh, Fire Saga try to be what a successful band should be. A boy from the world of K-Pop attempts to lend a commercial polish. Unfortunately these efforts lead to Sigrit becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their music. Then there are personal distractions, involving a sultry Greek, and a theatrical Russian, which all leads to another disastrous performance in the semi-final And yet, as is the way with these things, Fire Saga’s staging misfortunes attract enough amused voting to get them through to the final.

After more unpredictable twists and turns Fire Saga, at last, get to perform on the Eurovision stage. But realising he has lost his way trying to be who he thinks a good pop musician should be, Lars insists they play Sigrit’s new song, which she has composed for him while they are in Edinburgh. This heartfelt song is a huge success, and surely would have won the contest. But unpredictable to the last, it is against the rules to change a song during the competition, which means Iceland are disqualified. The suggestion is that music can’t be tied down by rules. Fire Saga can triumph without winning. There is no music which in the end can be defined as good or bad, winning or losing. Music defies such categories, and I guess that’s why some people can like a song disliked by others, and why The Eurovision Song Contest has super fans and haters, and why I can enjoy a film which a BBC reviewer dismisses as rubbish within two minutes.

The Icelandic elves are in charge, and they are tricksy little creatures.

Best Eight – How Novels Can Help You In Business

Business has its own literature, a whole range of books, describing best practice in all kinds of areas. But what about a novel? Could a novel be helpful to someone running a business?

It is easy to put a divide between useful writing, and writing designed for entertainment. But let’s not judge too quickly. A novel will impart wisdom and advice, but does so with a characteristically light touch. There are exceptions of course. Ayn Rand is hardly subtle in her cheerleading for the free markets; but generally speaking a novel will present a set of contradictions. The novelist, rather than giving a simple answer to reconciling these contradictions, will tend to stand back and see how things play out.

Think of the classic novel From Here To Eternity by James Jones, which describes life on a United States Army base in Hawaii in the months before and just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The book is really about leadership and the way people work together. Broadly speaking, James Jones presents us with lazy soldiers who just do what they are told, and conscientious, principled, potentially disruptive soldiers who stand up for what they believe is correct and true. Many of the army commanders only value the obedient solider, with tragic problems ensuing.

Applying this to the business world, let’s think about that typical interview question “describe your strengths and weaknesses”. A novel tends to show that strengths and weaknesses are interchangeable, and are better seen as a set of characteristics which play out well or badly depending on circumstances. A novel-reading interviewer is highly unlikely to be thinking “is this a strong or a weak person?” Instead they’ll be wondering: “is this person going to be happy working with us?” Or “does this person have something that our team lacks at the moment, or has in excess?”

Which brings me to my new book, Best Eight. This novel was inspired by an odd fact I came across whilst idly, and accidentally, watching a documentary about rowing a few years ago. An extremely healthy looking young man was explaining that selecting a competitive, eight person rowing crew was not about choosing the eight best performers on a rowing machine. A good rowing crew is mysteriously more than the sum of its parts. It’s best eight, not eight best. Out of this came all kinds of interesting possibilities. There was potential unfairness in the way a competent rower might possibly be passed over in favour of someone less competent. Equally, there was a sense of tolerance in the way we should withhold judgement about who is worthy and who is not. A narrow definition of merit shuts the door on people who have unexpected things to give.

So, I wondered, could we stretch this idea out? Let’s think up a bizarre scenario – maybe at some distant time in the future, a King of Earth wants his grandson and heir to extend the monarchy to Mars. The boy is reluctant to face his responsibilities, so the King decides that rowing might instil the necessary grit. Could there be a place in the Oxford Blue Boat for a future prince, who is quite possibly the worst rower at Oxford University? Could there be some way for this unlikely person to be one of the best eight, even if he is certainly not one of the eight best? I set out to explore this, not to make some prescription for the difficult business of creating a team, but to give a feel for the complications involved. A novel will not give answers, but show us the problems which we have to be aware of in finding an answer that works for us.

There are many novels which will help give perspective on all aspects of life, business included. In conclusion here are just an few more great books which might have a particular relevance to the challenges of running a business. Enjoy:

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Wills Cather – a Roman Catholic clergyman has to win over people from a wide variety of places and backgrounds, when he takes over the diocese of New Mexico in the late nineteenth century.

Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy by John Le Carre – a tale of double agents during the Cold War. The book is very interesting on the relative nature of qualities that make a person good at a particular job.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – an inspirational teacher at a Scottish school in the 1930s fires the imagination of pupils with her admiration for the Nazi Party in Europe. An unsettling look at notions of authority, leadership and belonging.

Things Fall Apart by Achebe China – a young man living in a traditional, late nineteenth century Nigerian tribal society, tries to climb the greasy pole of success, at a time when African and British definitions of success collide.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid – the story of a high flying business consultant who leaves his job at an American firm soon after 9/11 to return to his native Pakistan. A study in the way the mindset of fundamentalism can worm its way into all aspects of life, religious, personal and business.

Lord Jim by Jospeh Conrad – a sailor makes a mistake at work and pays the price, in a way that makes you question whether we are too quick to judge the performance and competence of others.

Monarchs Without Borders – The History Behind Best Eight

My new book, Best Eight, is about a royal family of the future trying to use dynastic manoeuvrings to overcome divisions between Earth and settlements on Mars. Unlikely as this scenario sounds, there is plenty of history behind the book’s fanciful future. In our own divided times the UK’s Queen is a source of national pride. We should remember, though, that until relatively recently, the interests of a monarch typically went across borders.

The history of monarchy in Europe has had an international flavour, ever since the Roman Empire collapsed. From the ninth century, a monarch known as the Holy Roman Emperor presided over a loose confederation of European territories centred on present day Germany and Italy. From the eleventh century, the Norman and Angevin kings ruled both England and areas of present day France. From the thirteenth century, the Hapsburg monarchy began to develop, like a multi national company, with branches in Austria, the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia and Spain.

I could go into a lot more more complicated detail, but suffice to say the story of European royalty is not about nationalism. In fact a historian with the great name of H.G. Koenigsberger, has come up with the term “composite monarchy” and “composite state” to describe a typical European monarch and their domain.

So for centuries, monarchs had presided over composite states rather than countries. This very much included the UK royal family. Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth II’s great great grandmother, was known as “the grandmama of Europe”. Members of her largely German derived family were present in royal courts across the continent. Victoria’s daughter, Princess Victoria, was actually mother of the Kaiser, the monarch of Germany during the First World War. You’d have thought that such fraternal links would have helped prevent something as terrible as the First World War. And, indeed, once they realised the gravity of the situation, Europe’s royals did try to stop what was happening. But despite a blizzard of telegrams between royal cousins in different countries as war approached, they were not able to resist generals, politicians, arms manufacturers, mobilisation timetables and nationalist fervour whipped up by popular newspapers. The war happened, and by its end the three great royal houses of Europe – the Russian, Hapsburg, and German had all disappeared. The British monarchy only survived by hiding an international nature behind a patriotic disguise. George V identified himself with the wartime lives of his subjects, touring hospitals and arms factories. He changed the family name from Saxe Coburg Gotha to the more British sounding Windsor. Other royal titles also had a make-over. It was a question of here’s a map – choose somewhere British, that’s not too industrial. The Duke of Teck became the Marquis of Cambridge; Prince Alexander of Teck became the Earl of Athlone; Prince Louis of Battenberg became the Marquis of Milford Haven; and Prince Alexander of Battenberg became the Marquis of Carisbrooke.

In this way the British monarchy survived, by denying its reality. That reality had been crushed in the nationalism of the First World War. Monarchy had hardly been a perfect system of government – the Russian royal family acted as autocrats, and the Kaiser has been described as a bombastic sabre rattler, who was too late in his desperate efforts to make amends by using his family contacts to try to find peace. But though governments largely ended any role for monarchy after 1918, previous arrangements were perhaps preferable to what followed. The fall of international kings and queens led on to the rise of nationalist dictators, the legacy of which remains with us in independence movements to this day. It is almost symbolic that the trigger for the First World War was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Hapsburg throne, by a Serbian separatist.

So next time you see the Queen held up as a national symbol, it is worth remembering that the history of monarchy does not support this. Best Eight is a whimsical picture of the real history of monarchy translated into the future.

Introducing Best Eight

A few weeks ago I posted an article about sending my new science fiction book to an editor at a sci-fi imprint, who judged it as “not science fiction”. Science fiction is a very diverse genre, covering the portrayal of science in the future, and often in the present and past as well, except where it doesn’t involve science at all, as in speculative fiction, alternate history, or in the related category of fantasy. Writer Damon Knight has described this enigmatic type of writing as “what we point to when we say it”. So setting out to write sci-fi only to have an editor suggest that the book does not fall into that category, felt like a kind of achievement in itself. Science fiction is what we point to when we say it, except for that book Martin Jones wrote.

Now, finally, the book is available on Amazon Kindle. And oddly, that experience of not immediately finding a seat in the sci-fi boat is very fitting for what I set out to write about. The novel is called Best Eight, and was inspired by an odd fact I came across whilst idly, and accidentally, watching a documentary about rowing a few years ago. An extremely healthy looking young man was explaining that selecting a competitive, eight person rowing crew was not about choosing the eight best performers on a rowing machine. A good rowing crew is mysteriously more than the sum of its parts. It’s best eight, not eight best. Out of this came all kinds of interesting possibilities. There was potential unfairness in the way a competent rower might possibly be passed over in favour of someone less competent. Equally, there was a sense of tolerance in the way we should withhold judgement about who is worthy and who is not. A narrow definition of merit shuts the door on people who have unexpected things to give.

So, I wondered, could we stretch this idea out? Let’s think up a bizarre scenario – maybe at some distant time in the future, a King of Earth wants his grandson and heir to extend the monarchy to Mars. The boy is reluctant to face his responsibilities, so the King decides that rowing might instil the necessary grit. Could there be a place in the Oxford Blue Boat for a future prince, who is quite possibly the worst rower at Oxford University? Could there be some way for this unlikely person to be one of the best eight, even if he is certainly not one of the eight best? And so the game was on. The challenge was to find a way for the prince to win a place in the boat and go on to fulfil his destiny. The other challenge was to take a book set in the future, but playing out in the most traditional of locations, and find a seat for it in the sci-fi boat.

To see what happened, follow the link below. Enjoy.

History And Statues According To The Simpsons

The boarding up of a statue of Winston Churchill this week reminded me of an episode of The Simpsons, where clever Lisa is given an assignment to write an essay on Jebediah Springfield, founder of the town of Springfield. The town’s 200th anniversary is only a week away, and all the school children must write about Jebediah. Most children trot out the usual story, but conscientious Lisa goes to the town museum to get extra information. There she meets kindly curator Hollis Hurlburt who shows her the museum’s precious Jebediah exhibits. These include “his fife on which he sounded the sweet note of freedom”, and also his chamber pot. While Hollis is off checking his microwaved jonny cakes, Lisa has a go at playing a tune on the fife, but all she succeeds in doing is blowing out a rolled up sheet of paper, on which Jebediah had written his secret confession:

“Firstly, I did not tame the legendary buffalo. It was already tame. I merely shot it. Secondly, I have not always been known as Jebediah Springfield. Until 1796 I was Hans Sprungfeld, murderous pirate, and the half wits of this town shall never learn the truth! Ha ha ha ha ha!”

History might have the avuncular image of Hollis Hurlbut, but it is a fraught subject. Countries have their national myths, which aren’t the same as history. Problematic statues are only the start of it.

Springfield’s town procession is a bit like a coronation for the UK. Lots of people turn out, children wave flags, and there is a sense of togetherness and celebration. But certain elements of the British coronation ceremony would have made Hans Sprungfeld proud, and would have given Lisa much to worry about. For example, consider the coronation chair, the centre-point of the proceedings, where a monarch sits to be crowned. If you look carefully you will see a big hunk of stone beneath the chair. This is called, rather ostentatiously, The Stone of Destiny. The Stone is actually the great symbol of Scotland. It was taken from Scotland in 1296 when fearsome English king Edward I invaded Scotland, massacring Berwick’s entire population in the process. Edward understood the symbolism of national identity, and taking the Stone of Destiny back to London with him, he made sure that all English monarchs to come would be sitting on Scotland from the moment they were crowned.

Edward dealt out similar treatment to Wales. In 1282 Edward set about subduing Wales and bringing it under English control. He demolished Wales’s equivalent of Westminster Abbey, the monastery at Aberconwy, and built Conwy Castle on top of it. He then gave the title of Prince of Wales to his son and heir, just to remind Wales who was really in charge. I can imagine Lisa Simpson getting up at the investiture ceremony of a modern Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle, and telling people all about it.

But then before we get too down on England, Lisa could also tell you that Wales and Scotland have silly national myths of their own. Wales may talk of struggles against England, but Wales, despite present day assemblies, has never really existed as a centralised country beyond its common language. And Scotland has created myths to make its history look more continuous than it really is. The Stone of Destiny is actually one of these myths. From the thirteenth century Scottish historians were claiming an impossibly early date for the Stone’s arrival in Scotland. The aim was to give Scotland a longer and more impressive history than it actually possessed (see The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor Roper).

Sadly, the function of history is, and has always been, to support the political interests of the present. This is what people are referring to when they talk of “proud” history. The residents of Springfield are proud when they quote Jebediah Springfield, who is supposed to have said that “a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. But as Lisa discovered with her problematic researches, history is frequently not proud, and using history as a source of national pride or national unity is asking for trouble.

After Lisa gets an F for her essay, Jebediah Springfield Super Fraud, she forces Hollis to admit that he knew the truth of Jebediah all along. He confesses to removing offending evidence, and agrees to help Lisa stop the town procession. But when it comes to it Lisa cannot bring herself to ruin Springfield’s fun. She marches with everyone else in the celebration. Poor Lisa. What would you do? We face the same dilemma. But you can be sure of one thing – if you base your personal identity on Jebediah Springfield and the place he represents, then at some point Jebediah will turn out to be Hans Sprungfeld, and the place he symbolises will disappoint and become meaningless. It is better to base your identity on who you are, rather than on who you think somebody else is.