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An Idiot’s Guide to Making History by Mario Laghos

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An Idiot’s Guide to Making History

Photo: Mario Laghos

If you want to see England, the real England, then take a drive down the A39. The road spans the entire South-West, and delivers commuters from Bath to spitting distance of Land’s End. The great artery connects the cities on route, but more importantly for us, it shoots out into capillaries which weave their way through parishes and villages that date back millennia.

Turn off into the A396, and you’ll find the village of Dunster. It’s nestled away in a quiet corner of sleepy Somerset. Its north side straddles the sea, and the Exmoor hills to the East tuck it away all cosy. The village is old. Dunster makes its debut in recorded history by its mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. Though the presence of terraformed hills, the echoes of iron age forts, attest that the site was home to Britons for a thousand years or more before the quill made its mark. Dunster is named for the Saxon word Tor, meaning rocky hill. On the crest of the outcrop to which the town owes its name, the castle of Dunster juts up into the sky. Its sheer height commands the horizon, and its awesome presence dominates against the silhouette of rolling hills that flank it.

This castle, which last summer I had gone to visit, belied the old age of the area. It looked awfully modern. And for good reason. The Luttrell family, who bought the castle in the 14th century, and occupied it until 1976, spent the best part of six hundred years knocking the place down. Though its scale is still epic, its form is far less so. To call it a castle is a kind of misnomer, as it’s more like a mansion. Internally there is very little sense of history. There are dark wood libraries, busts, portraits, a billiards table, and a kitchen straight out of a sci-fi movie, but almost nothing to tell the story of what once was, before the wrecking ball was taken to it and its fate as a clubhouse for the super-rich sealed. The only sign, in fact, is a wall-mounted plaque, to tell visitors that they are standing on the site of what once was a great keep until it was demolished to make way for a bowling green.

The walk around the castle’s interior was pleasant—but unfulfilling. The historical information presented was remarkedly contemporary, and largely concerned with the exploits of an unremarkable family. The only morsel of proper history well explored is that of a battle that took place there during the English Civil War, but the castle didn’t boast of an armoury worth mentioning, or any other relevant artefacts. I had arrived with the desire to get a feel for history but felt only the ego of a faded aristocracy.

I left for the village, looking for somewhere to eat. The restaurants were closed; it’s a lethargic place. But there was a sign taped to the inside of a window which promised that a visit to the pub further along would be, not just a watering hole, but an opportunity to meet Nelson, the world-famous swearing parrot. On arrival, it was clear that the two most regular visitors to this establishment were the landlady and the barmaid. I got a beer in and settled down next to Nelson. He was disinterested by my arrival; I supposed he must be accustomed to being mobbed by fans so I didn’t take offence at his disposition. Not wanting to appear entitled, I declined to ask him to swear straight away, instead I greeted him, before feigning interest at the television. Then after I felt we had built up a silent rapport I struck up a conversation. I had assumed that Nelson would reflexively swear at me, but I was wrong. He whistled to me, so I began to swear to him, initially in hushed tones. Then like a post-watershed game of Bogies the volume gradually increased as I tried to grab the parrot’s attention. Soon the two regulars had arrived, and we formed something like an impromptu a capella group. Eventually the landlady resigned, “He’s not doing it today,” she said, as though the manager of a popstar whose client refused to take the stage. “He’s on that YouTube doing it,” said the barmaid, and sure enough a search for “Nelson the swearing parrot” turned up a video of the very same parrot, in the very same corner. In this video he was making more guttural-sounding noise, but still not well enunciated swear words. I concluded his billing as the “Tourette’s swearing parrot” was, in the end, a bit of an overpromise. 

As one disappointment followed another I gave up on dinner and settled for a pie from a local bakery. Across the road, a shield-shaped sign, adorned by a shining knight caught my eye. It read “The Medieval Gallery.” There was another sign, this one less exquisite, fixed to the glass entrance door: “The Abbot requests you wear a mask.” I pulled up my mask and made my way in, negotiating an awkward corner step the swung open door overhanged. Inside, music was playing—something like a Gregorian chant or monastic hymn.

I was confronted with a tall and slender man. I asked if he was the Abbot. He said he was. I wished him a good afternoon and set about checking the place out. There were swords, helmets and shields, busts, paintings, prints, and all manner of trinkets. It was a fascinating place, but there was nothing of Dunster, or its history to be found. I resolved that if there was no history for public consumption, I would make it, and the Abbot would help me.

I struck up a conversation with the Abbot, who told me that his name was Steve. We’re both half Italian, and when that came up, he dropped his guard and we got chatting proper. Steve was an atheist and a graduate of history. I had read online about a great siege that had taken place at the castle in 1139, of which no surviving depiction exists. I decided to make one, and that the gallery would be the best place to house it. Before leaving I asked if he would stock such a thing, and he agreed, in the sense anyone might, with a flash of scepticism.

What better place to start on such a project than that great font of information that is Wikipedia? The online encyclopaedia offered up just a single paragraph on the siege, that it was part of an earlier civil war known as the Anarchy, fought between Empress Matilda and King Stephen. The defender, who in the event was the victor, was William De Mohun, about whom history records a turn to tyranny. Also available online were the family crests of the belligerents, which have miraculously survived the test of time. I compiled a dossier detailing the kinds of armour that the troops would be wearing, what kind of numbers would have been fielded, and got in touch with my friend, and artist, Vladimir Gasai.

Within a couple of weeks, Vlad had completed the picture, and emailed it to me. It was digital but made in such a way as to look painted, incorporating faux brushstrokes and bold colours. I sent a copy to Steve, who invited me back to the gallery. The Abbot, I would find out to my cost, was dogmatic. 

The castle was far too modern—too many towers, and some were even round, all terribly anachronistic. The sea was in the wrong place, and the Exmoor hills were nowhere near the right scale. The priory, which was apparently built a few years before the battle, failed to make an appearance in my picture. And most tantamount to heresy, the windows were arched, not squared. Steve suggested we go to the Luttrell Arms, a pub with a panoramic view of the castle and neighbouring terrain. It was a nice place but spoilt by the intervention of an atrophied individual, who, when I obliged his request for a cigarette, burst into a fit of rage and went on an expletive-ridden rant. I kept to my longstanding policy of not fighting with someone who has nothing to lose and, though keeping an eye on him until he left, didn’t get into a slanging match. Just as the castle was suffering from the Luttrell’s 1970s vision, the town was feeling the effects of the ’80s, specifically, Margaret Thatcher’s Care in the Community initiative.

I had taken new reference photographs, and had my instructions to contact the local records office, track down an enigmatic professor, and do more research online. The records office, working from original source material from the period, returned with alacrity a great swathe of information on the castle’s 12th century appearance. History even recounts that in the specific year of our concern, William De Mohun built a wooden stockade to bolster his defences. With a suite of additional knowledge, work restarted, and the picture was updated.

Abbot Steve sent the second version to purgatory. It was better, but not quite good enough, and it would remain there until a final tranche of changes were made. Plate gauntlets and great helms were way out, not Norman enough, these were the Dark Ages after all. With these rookie errors ironed out, the finished product was printed onto canvas, finalising the imitation oil painting effect, and placed in the gallery window. I took a picture holding it aloft for posterity. Now, for all those other souls who wanted a feel for the long-gone, there would be a visual morsel waiting for them as they stumbled out of the castle. Mission accomplished.

But like a builder whose house is never finished, it occurred to me that there were endless major battles and events across this land whose only mention can be found in original source material, tucked away in archives. They’re not written about online, depicted in art, or seen on TV. Often, even the staff inside the castles didn’t know about the most crucial events that had taken place in their workspace.

In Exeter, there are two castles. The first is named for the city, Exeter castle, and the second is Powderham. Exeter castle was sacked during the War of the Roses. Much of its exterior walls exist, but it is gated and repurposed as private accommodation and for functions and weddings. Powderham, while also offering a wedding service, is a fully-fledged tourist attraction, with rose gardens, a deer park, and a furnished and explorable interior. But as with Dunster, you’re not seeing the historical building—you’re looking at a 19th century house. Much of it is newer than many terraced houses that we wouldn’t look twice at.  

The internet attests that Powderham was the subject of a siege during the War of the Roses, which was ultimately rebuffed. But the staff disagreed and told me no such event ever occurred. It was their word against a fragment of a mention online. I contacted the Devon records office, who confirmed, that it was Wikipedia that was the more reliable source. The next project had come calling.

Dotted across the South-West, you’ll now find pictures placed, the work of Vlad, myself, and others, which commemorate and give life to major historical events, which had for who knows how long gone unnoticed. I pondered why it had come down to me, an idiot, to document some of the most seminal events, not just of the areas themselves, but, also of English history in general. These were battles and wars which changed the face of the country we know today. And I think I know why. 

The National Trust, and organisations like it, have for a long time been as lowly stewards as the likes of the Luttrells. Instead of giving life and vim to the great deeds of the former occupants of castles and stately houses—they divert their resources producing reports and catering to factional interest groups, pathologically focusing on colonial-era slavery and highlighting every possible connection to ‘their’ properties. This ambition is the equivalent of a mortal man trying to clean out the Augean stables. 

Before there was ever such a thing as England, English people were being enslaved by one another, and then by the Romans, and later, the Vikings. The British were among the estimated 1.25 million Europeans kidnapped by Barbary pirates, both at sea and from coastal villages, who were sold into slavery in the Middle East, a blight which lived well into the 1800s. And, when the British had power, they took slaves, as did every civilisation on the earth, from the aforementioned African Barbers, to the Islamic caliphates, the Mongol hordes of Asia, the kingdoms of central Africa, the Persians, the Greeks, and many more besides. Slavery was not an oddity of British history, but a ubiquitous global practise.  

The Trust commissioned a 115-page report on slavery, which says that “a significant number of the collections, houses, gardens, and parklands in our care were created or remodelled as expressions of the taste and wealth, as well as power and privilege, that derived from colonial connections and in some cases from the trade in enslaved people.” This is true, but then, there is no great monument on earth whose standing did not come about as the result of colonial enrichment. The Taj Mahal, for instance, was built by the Mughal Empire, itself a slave-trading enterprise, which indentured into constructing the mausoleum labourers who were indistinguishable from slaves. But the Indians would never self-flagellate by desecrating the site with a plaque asking for forgiveness. It’s taken as read that this was the way of the world. It’s not as if we in Britain are not already bombarded with enough information by the broadcast media, or for that matter, the school curriculum, agonising over the eternal shame of slavery. Although slaves likely didn’t build the pyramids, their building would not have been possible without the vast wealth acquired by the Egyptian Empire through their trade in foreign slaves. And yet, millions flock annually to see these things, without ever cooing that there ought to be some kind of plaque to atone for their connection to historical slavery—certainly not the Egyptians themselves. We could look at the wonders of the world, from the Great Wall of China to the Colosseum and the Temple of Kukulcán in Mexico, and put plaques and signs and disclaimers all over them. But then, such a stupid thing would never happen in those countries.

The reality is that marking our historical sites out as defective, or tainted by their past, as the National Trust seeks to do, inches them closer to being veiled, hidden, or even removed in part or in whole. There is a section of society that just wants to tear things down, the Colston statue topplers, the London monuments review commission, the Cenotaph defilers, and all they want is an excuse. In younger countries like the U.S., those people tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln, because they don’t have a lot else to tear down. And this mind-virus has made its way to us, and it has infected our elites. It makes it all the worse that we have a real history to defend.

A group of National Trust members came together to make up Restore Trust, a lobbying group whose aim is to course correct the Trust back to curatorship and conservation. They say the Trust has lost its way, and cares more about LGBTQ+ issues than history. Raj Pal, who contributed to the Trust’s slavery report which earmarked Churchill’s house as a site of shame, said of the rebellious members that:

While I wouldn’t say they’re exactly the same [as with Brexit], I think what is happening to some degree at the National Trust has a certain sense of trying to preserve a notion of England… It’s a sense of trying to use the National Trust as a temple to a certain level of Englishness of the past uncontaminated, in some people’s eyes, by all this multiculturalism. 

I would suggest Raj take their expert lecturing consultancy to the Italians, or the Indians, but they would not be as stupid as us to tolerate, or worse still, pay for this kind of tedious insult. These behaviours aren’t solely the purview of the National Trust. English Heritage, which cares for over 400 monuments, was reported by the Telegraph as having, vis-a-vis the Trust, a “less woke interpretation of the past.” But English Heritage made an editorial complaint about this headline and insisted that the headline was “completely at odds with the views of our chief executive, including those expressed—and cited—in the interview itself.” They claimed this was an attempt to sew discord, and had the headline changed to: “Cancel culture? We’re on safe ground. We always try to find the stories of under-represented groups.”

It’s no wonder that the staff at these historical sites can’t tell you about the most important events that took place there, but have books on hand ready to reel off any and all connections to slavery, or some other benign or uninteresting detail like the carving of a billiards table. But in large part that’s not their fault, the agenda is set from the top, and the top, as with many other great institutions, has been hijacked. I’m not a member of either of these institutions, but I would say to those who are, if you want your money to be spent on curation, care, and cultivation of rich history, it’s long overdue time to take back control. It takes a lot of time to create something, and a mere moment to destroy it forever.

Mario Laghos is a political analyst, author, and the editor of Just Debate.