Saturday, 24 April 2010

Another crackpot recovered

Another crackpot: Alan V Insole, Immortal Britain (1952)


This 1952 book offers us a foreshadowing of New Age irrationalism and a link between 19th century crackpot antiquarianism and the drug-addled ramblings of modern times.

There is a frontispiece, showing a unicorn, with a chain formerly around its neck visibly broken, trampling a swastika and a hammer and sickle emblem. The border is decorated with scrolls showing an interlace with zoomorphic decoration, familiar as the Hiberno-Saxon style of manuscript painting. The cover design shows St George leering at a dragon which we can see as an empty skin into which a naked man with a hammer and sickle on his buttock is crawling. It has a swastika just beneath its eye. On his forehead are stag’s horns. A chalk figure stands, a staff in each hand, on a broad down behind him. One chapter is called “Origins of the Cold War’ and the book is a defence of the traditions of Britain against foreign tyranny, not sparing the traditions of astrology, freemasonry, and the occult. The book has 568 footnotes. It was published by Aquarian Press - I can’t describe them, although I doubt they are the same outfit as the modern Aquarian Press. The name suggests an interest in astrology. It seems they published a book by chief witch Doreen Valiente in 1964.

The chapter on “Origins of the Cold War’ starts with Classical civilisation and is still there 23 pages later, to close with a quote from Blake. The stuff about Russia comes in one paragraph somewhere in the middle, where we are told that paranoia is the origin of totalitarianism and so is unchanging - so that a study of the Roman empire is quite adequate to explain the Soviet and Nazi regimes (which he sees as identical). Insole sees a flat world, where everything within his reach is flattened onto one plane, and there is no difference between 100 AD and 1950 AD.

Insole shows us Neolithic refugees from the invading tyranny of the Battle Axe People, fleeing to Britain circa 2000 BC to retain their freedom. This is charming but I can’t help feeling that he is projecting the situation of the 1940s back onto deep prehistory. He offers no evidence that Britain was in any detectible way free in prehistory. The history of freedom is a noble theme. Insole is right to think that where the State is weak and citizens strong, as in Britain and the USA in very recent times, the history of smaller structures, such as the household, comes to the fore. With that shift of perspective the relations between men and women also come to the fore. The trouble is that he has not found any evidence to help out his fantasies and seems to have no idea of where such evidence can be found. The history of the family is of supreme interest but requires more work than the history of the State, since after all the State hires full-time historians and generates warehouses of archival documents as part of its ordinary routine.
This work sheds light on the closeness of the idealistic and the psychotic. Its line of reasoning ignores probability, the validity of analogy, the views of other people, evidence, in fact everything which makes the difference between psychotic states of mind and reason or sanity. We can hardly ignore the psychotic quality in this reasoning. Yet it presents beautiful ideals. It is beautiful to think of love and equality between men and women originating in Britain and always being preserved there. It's untrue, but it’s beautiful. It is also beautiful to think of a home of freedom, going back to the age before farming. To locate that mythic place in Britain would call for evidence, and Insole offers none, but it surely is beautiful all the same. Delusions are likely to include the extremely beautiful as part of the deal. All this before drugs come along to give you psychosis and the ideal in one evening.

Insole says at p. 135 ‘We shudder to think to what depths Europe might have sunk if not for the bards of Britain. It was they who created the Age of Chivalry, and the whole concept of ‘courtly love’.’ He says of the knights of the Round Table that ’it was their singers who rescued women from the degradation of the early fathers and placed around them and their favours [those] poetical romances’. There is a footnote to be added here. Andreas Capellanus, writing about 1184 AD, does in fact say that there was a real place where courtly love was present not just in poetry but in real life, and this was the Court of Arthur. That court would have been late 5th C or early 6th, and in Britain. The trouble is that the nature of Andreas' text is one of learned fantasy - he is producing clever argument as an entertainment and does not even look like a historian who uses and qualifies sources. His book is about the doctrine of love, which sophisticated courtiers used at that time to discuss to pass the time, arguing theoretical cases to see what the rules of love were. (He got the information about Arthur's court from Geoffrey of Monmouth.) The next point is that the novel of courtly love is very generally agreed to start with Chrétien of Troyes, whose writings are culturally related to Andreas, and of the same date (to be exact 1170-1190). However, Chrétien came from Troyes and is universally agreed to be at the origin of the French literary tradition of love and reverence for women. This has nothing to do with Britain and such romances arrive later in Britain and were written in French when they first arrived there. It is true that Chrétien's stories are fictively about the knights of Arthur and set in an imaginary sub-Roman Britain, with names deriving in a rough way from P-Celtic speech, but really they were completely made up and the style did not exist before Chrétien. To attribute courtly love to Britain is a hypothesis unknown to science and it is utterly implausible. (The lais of Marie de France are earlier than Chrétien and date from the 1160s. They also focus on love and use the Arthurian myth.) It is barely plausible that Arthur even had a court, as opposed to an army camp where he and his officers slept. The Arthurian country is a blissful Nowhereland for Chrétien as it was for Tennyson. Actually there was no Age of chivalry, just a literary genre. Surely not the same thing?

Insole is not completely insulated (or insolated) in his delusions. There are a number of contact points between him and later waves of English irrationalism. The book ends with a quote from Blake which includes the 'Rouse up! ye sons of the New Age' riff. So hippies in 1968 were looking at the same pictures he was seeing. He cites EO Gordon (Prehistoric History of London) who was one of the authors picked up by 1960s antiquarians, and crops up in Allen Fisher‘s Place. This may be specifically to do with a strange story Gordon tells about mounds in London, but more generally represents an interest in topography - you wander around the countryside, or even around London, on your days off, and spot anomalous things which you prefer to embody ‘the truth’ over scholarly history and its rationalism. (Insole gets the title wrong, so we may as well record that it is ‘Prehistoric London: its mounds and circles‘, by Elizabeth Oke Gordon.)

The links are the exaltation of the prehistoric British past, the preoccupation with topography, the belief that the whole of history as accepted by the intelligent is propaganda, that personal relations undergo revolutions in history and that the powerful are victims of madness, leading to institutional alienation from which we are now to recover; that history is a projection of the unconscious; that place-names store up long lost traditions. The idea that everything significant in history happened in Britain comes from Blake. (The closely related idea that in Britain homely things like hills, hedges, stones, oral tags, children's games, etc. embody vast significance must have been invented after Blake.) Insole sums up Gordon like this: ‘In London when the Sacred Tree decayed and became a stump it was likely to have been replaced by a stone, which acquired the name Pol or Pul which was an ancient title of the Sun God, and so became Old Pol‘s Stump. EO Gordon in his Prehistoric London gives reasons to believe that on the site of St Paul‘s there was an oracle of the hunting days as far back as 3200 BC; and that it became a stone circle about 1900 BC; and that the pointer to the South-east was the famous London Stone still preserved in the walls of St Swithin‘s Church.' (p.91)

At p. 60 he quotes HJ Massingham on a game of football played once a year in Dorking: 'the game was not a sport but a religious service [...] The game was played by people with a social organisation which was split into two halves for ritual purposes. One side of the community representing the sky-world and its solar cult, and the other the underworld [...] The costumes of some of the players represented the ancient king-gods of Britain.' (This text dates from 1932.) Massingham sold many books and was a link between the grandiose fantasies of Diffusionism and the new-style fantasies of the 1960s. The idea of ancient culture preserved in things like games of football is a significant doctrine of English crackpots, going back to Sir Lawrence Gomme if not before. (Ronald Hutton suggests that this ball got rolling with an 1890 paper by Sydney Hartland in Folk-lore.)
As well as Gordon, Insole has AV Maltwood, the spiritualist medium who in the 1920s ‘found’ a zodiac in the landscape around Glastonbury. He thus has the Doctrine of landscape as embodying ancient cultural symbolism and containing messages for us to decode. This is not yet Iain Sinclair but it is well on the way. Insole has not yet aggregated sacred geometry, ley lines, or flying saucers into the mythic corpus. This was the work of a later group.
A half-hearted search on the Internet shows Insole mentioned in a DH Lawrence letter of 1920. Uninspiring. He was presumably in Taormina or nearby in 1920, with someone called Juta. (hit from Website for the catalogue of a collection at Nottingham University.)
Insole scores a point over megaliths. He doubts their diffusion to Britain from far away, arguing that things tend to become feebler as the waves diffuse further from a point of origin (and maximum intensity?). Of course carbon-14 dating has disproved the idea of professional archaeologists of the time (viz 1952) about the diffusion of megalithic ideas, and Insole deserves credit for right intuition.

I bought this for £2 and while this excuses a lot the book is not worth more than 99p.
So what is the justification for dealing with this crackpot? It has to do with Outsider Art and more specifically my guilt at not finding any to put in 'The Long 1950s'. If we are looking for Outsiders in Britain to compare with those collected by Harald Szeemann, in those incontestably great works of his, we have to look for them where they are. Both Sinclair and Fisher incorporate themes redolent of Outsider Art, but I cannot accept that they are Outsiders. They are lucid intellectuals, and if you read their interviews their lucidity and solidity of knowledge are visible at every point. What they share is a massive interest in Blake at an early stage of their journey: the national preoccupation with him has put Blake in an authorised position (consider the statue based on his engraving which now stands in the forecourt of the British Library), and so the stylemes associated with Outsider Art have migrated to somewhere much closer to the centre. It follows that the envy of Outsider approaches which used to be such a feature of Western artists has largely been diluted and dissolved, and in fact that handling such uncontrollable themes is now one of the feats which a serious artist has to master. (London Stone crops up in Fisher's work.)
Much as I despise the doctrine, flagrantly abused by Massingham and Gomme among others, that an ancient and apparently meaningless blob of picture or speech can trap a powerful fragment of ancient cultural meaning, even if those who have preserved it completely fail to understand it, I concede that this Doctrine has been outstandingly useful to television, first to Nigel Kneale and then to a large number of scriptwriters for 'Dr Who'.

The idea flimmers up that viewing history through individual psychic structure and through slight changes in relations within the household was, at some unnamed point perhaps in the late 19th C, as odd and marginal as the search for ‘sacred landscapes’ and ley lines. I am doubtful about this. In any case Insole was decades behind the times in 1952.

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