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.