The Long View: from the Floor

Introductory Note

This is the original version of the item I posted in the Independent blog. As ever, I over-wrote and then had to cut it back to 800 words, which is what they’d requested in the first place. Trouble is, I’m hopeless at counting words, or cost or beans. I suppose I’m just hopeless at counting. I think this version places more stress on the modern situation and the hopelessly elitist state of modern politics in Britain. I believe this is something we’ve got to address before too long. Now I’m not suggesting that if we don’t we’d find ourselves in the same situation as France in 1789, but I wouldn’t rule out an Arab Spring sometime in Britain, maybe in the next three or four decades, if politicians continue so haughtily on their present path. I do seriously believe they’re heading for a cliff (and not just a fiscal one) unless they change direction quite radically. People should remind them  that London isn’t the only place in Britain. Anyhow, see what you think. Time to read on…

The Long View: from the Floor

We archaeologists tend to spend most of our lives on our knees – which is not to say we’re a submissive bunch. No, far from it: most of my friends are rather assertive, and if they do fall to their knees on occasion, it’s through choice (I shall say no more). The point is, we work down there eight or ten hours a day and it provides us with our perspective, our view on the world, which is essentially bottom-up. It’s when objects, rubbish return to the soil that we start to get interested, and normally that’s towards the end of things. But we can only explain how they might have got there if we take a long-term view of life and of history, too. We’re not so much interested in events so much as processes. And this, too, gives us an unusual slant on the modern world, and its politics.

We work on the floor because that’s where rubbish tends to accumulate and rubbish is the meat and drink of what we study. But it isn’t simple, either. You might suppose that a king’s dining room floor would be crammed with loot: pearls lost from the corsets of passing courtesans; diamonds from off a duchess’s tiara or gold cufflinks from a fumbling princeling’s starched shirt. But of course it isn’t like that at all: royalty can afford to employ servants who would soon snaffle any rich pickings they found on the carpet. No, if you want finds you’d better sieve through the contents of the dustbins at 23B Acacia Avenue. That’s where the loot would be. As I said, you get to think about the world in a peculiar way if you see it from down below.

And that leads me to the point of this blog post: which is the book I’m now writing. And rest assured, this won’t be an advert. Now in case you haven’t heard all the ballyhoo I’ve tried to generate recently, the book I’ve just finished is an archaeological detective thriller. It’s set in the Fens and it features an archaeologist-cum-detective called Alan Cadbury. He’s a bit of an outsider, a loner, and an obsessive. So he’s nothing like me at all.

Now I know it’s customary for authors who lead double, fiction and non-fiction, creative lives to pretend that the two are entirely separate and that one doesn’t influence the other. But I’m afraid that doesn’t apply to me. My detective – and maybe this is because I’ve been a bit too focussed on him – has affected the way I’ve been seeing my other, factual, work. My fictional hero lives near the bottom of the social pile and takes his perspective on life from the floor, or the soil. He is no more capable of putting himself in the Prime Minister’s shoes than Mr Cameron is of trowelling through a Neolithic cess pit. Don’t get me wrong: both jobs take skill and application, but they aren’t exactly inter-changeable. I haven’t said it in print, but I can reveal here (for the very first time…) that Alan Cadbury feels very sorry for Her Majesty the Queen. As Alan sees it, she had no choice: it wasn’t a case of: ‘fail your exams and you won’t go to the Grammar School’; no, it was: ‘fail your exams and you’ll still end up on the Throne’. And then the rest of your life will be spent in the most conspicuous goldfish bowl on earth. And look what that did to Princess Diana, poor thing.

Alan’s upside-down view of life has rubbed off on me, of late. So in my latest book (which I’ll finish sometime in the autumn) I’m fascinated by the extent to which we ordinary folk can govern ourselves without the top-down help of Big Men and leaders ‘up there’. And as a prehistorian, I have been given a unique handle on all this. Because before the Romans arrived (in AD 43) and gave us writing, we had to live our lives without written records. There were no bureaucrats, no civil servants and no politicians. Government was local and was firmly embedded within the community and its families. If you’re a chief or leader and you get big-headed, the family and the rest of the tribe would soon sort you out. It was an effective system and it gave us stunning monuments, like Stonhenge. It also oversaw the creation of the British landscape, our first road system, together with the foundation of many villages and towns, even if some of these were not fully urban, in the modern sense.

Put another way, bottom-up, family-based, political systems worked for tens of thousands of years and the proof is out there in the landscape. I’m not suggesting we should turn back the clock, but why have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater?  Why have we abandoned localism entirely? Indeed, the fact that we have a politician, Mr Pickles, ostensibly devoted to the subject, proves my point. The spin-doctors and PR men are aware of widespread, rumbling, public discontent. But Mr Pickles’ Department is just a one-off: an event – a ‘sticking plaster’ to use a cliché – whereas the under-lying problem is part of a far deeper, longer-term process. And a pernicious process, at that.

So why have we gone over to a system of governance that is so ‘top-down’ that all the current party leaders can boast of having no experience of ‘real’ jobs?  It puts me in mind of those countless French Kings called Louis who ponced around ineffectively, but expensively, at Versailles. No, all any of our current major party leaders have done, is politics. But that’s not real work: it’s more like the casino bankers they’re so often compared with. You can say what you like about men like Michael Heseltine and John Prescott, they may not be perfect, but they’ve both cut the mustard out here in the world of real people, away from Westminster Village.

I think our obsession with top-down leaders even extends to my own subject. I’ve never known such a fuss made about a burial, and just because it was revealed that the stiff below the Leicester car park was Richard III. He was a celeb. So that’s alright then. Alan Cadbury despised the modern cult of celebrity and I agree with him. And why? Because I see it as a genuine ‘opium for the masses’. It’s almost straight out of Brave New World. The world of celebrity – political, social, sporting, entertainment – whatever – is  being controlled and manipulated to serve the interests of what anthropologists would label as ‘the controlling elite’: a combination of politicians and media magnates in London. And their objective?  To ensure that the ordinary people of Britain don’t think too much or too long about their deteriorating circumstances. Meanwhile the rich will continue to get richer and society will become ever more polarised into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.  ‘Them’ and ‘us’. So did it come as a surprise that politicians and journalists were in cahoots? Of course not. Will Leveson change anything? You must be joking! We’re talking about a long-term process here. And as we saw with Mr Pickles’ Department, the much vaunted Leveson enquiry is merely an event, albeit one that was imposed by the anger of the general public, rather than slimy spin-doctors.

No, the only way we will ever see real, fundamental change will be when power begins to devolve back to where it belongs: to the people who do the actual work, who generate real sustainable wealth. And can we continue to grow our way out of trouble, as politicians, trades union leaders and economists would have us all believe? Of course not. Those years came to an end, I suspect, a decade or two after the last war. I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t been living beyond our means for a very long time indeed. And if you doubt my word, ask an ordinary person living in India, China, Africa or South America: see what they’d say.  And if you want a truly ‘bottom up’ perspective on Britain and the western world, they’re the people you should be asking, not me.

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