By Steve Hanson
AMERICAN friends often comment on British culture, particularly its weirder manifestations. I usually respond by explaining that it is often no less weird for the island’s inhabitants. It comes and goes, but recently the weirdness has spiked, with the live, televised re-burial of the remains of Richard III, which were found in a car park in Leicester. Here we had a resurgence of what many academics call the “invented tradition”.
“Invented traditions” are no longer a radical proposal. The historian Eric Hobsbawm first used the term when writing about the televised Investiture of Prince Charles at Carmarthen in 1969, commenting that the “imagined communities” of the country suddenly seemed more real than their inhabited spaces.
Benedict Anderson wrote about the historical rise of these “imagined communities”, emerging from newspaper coverage of geographically distant, but suddenly imaginable places. The Investiture in 1969 presented a kind of televised, imaginary medievalism, but in the re-burial of Richard III, we perhaps had a much more real, authentic, 2015 medievalism, to go with the very real poor on the streets in Britain.
No, the “invented tradition” has a de facto curriculum now. For instance Raphael Samuel on the Lost Gardens of Heligan botanical centre, and Patrick Wright on the raising of the Tudor warship the Mary Rose, which I watched all day at school, when I was 10 years old, in October 1982.
As the Mary Rose was being lifted, Government statistics for unemployment were being switched. They were now to be based on the numbers of those claiming benefit, rather than on those registered as unemployed. In the same month, Margaret Thatcher justified her economic policies as “working”. Their cruelty was not really the point, monetarism was, and the emaciation of ordinary people just a by-product of laissez-faire economics. We always have to ask ourselves, when we smell “invented tradition”, what is being masked, and what is being highlighted?
Here was the general atmosphere that the televised raising usefully covered, but what was being pointed to? The Mary Rose was lifted on the 11th October, and the day after, a parade was held in London to celebrate “victory” in the Falklands. The British media had focused on the naval battles, coverage which included the controversial “GOTCHA” headline on the front page of the Sun newspaper. War in Ireland continued, although the Irish National Assembly was in motion. Here was a conflation of “victory” in the Falklands with a naval battle in the 16th Century: It was “invented tradition”.
Prince Charles actually became Prince of Wales in 1958, but the investiture took place over a decade later, in 1969, the point at which Welsh nationalism had taken, in places, the violent form it took in Ireland. The ceremony was only “formal”, not required to rule, but we must think of its “formalism” in art school terms here, aesthetics hooked up to rhetoric, propaganda.
It was doxa, unexamined opinion disguised as natural fact. It was a mishmash of historical litter, re-collaged and re-presented to the population as “authentic”. But the director of the ceremony, Lord Snowdon, wasn’t the first Kurt Schwitters of spin. The 1911 Investiture of Edward, later King Edward VIII, presented a “Welsh” collage, largely stitched together by Lloyd George.
We can fast-forward to the Royal Wedding in 2011 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee party a year later, and then watch Stephen Frears’ film The Queen, to understand what those occasions masked, alongside their functions as celebratory highlights in a time of “austerity”. Then of course we arrive at the present day and the re-burial of Richard III, a re-burial that also re-inscribes a monstrous character as a national hero.
So, what might the re-burial of King Richard III be both masking and highlighting? This most desperate of “state” funerals occurs at a time when statehood and democracy in Britain is at its most tattered and fragmented. Its forms have been petrified by globalisation, not just here, but right across Europe. If you think you smell a whiff of white English protestant chest-beating pride in the burial of Richard III, which might contain a trace of euro-scepticism, as I do, it is easy to rebuke without using cockney rhyming slang (in which Richard III has a very special significance).
Because under the Plantagenets, England was ruled from Europe as a slightly backwards colony, and Richard III – Richard Plantagenet – took his name from a family with lands in Anjou and Aquitaine. I write this from an ideologically pro-Europe standpoint, but the far right could well invert the point, with some logic-defying acrobatics. If you want to be nationalist about all of this, and I don’t, the Mary Rose was sunk fighting the French, but King Richard III and the Plantagenets were “French”. But really, they were as “French” as the Windsors, our current Royal family, are German: not very. This is all ideological conflation. It is invented tradition.
The recent casting of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III is interesting. He is already a kind of international trope of the “‘naturalness” of the British upper classes. There was an attempt to symbolically re-embed a “right to rule” for the old elites in the re-burial, but also a simultaneous mourning for the waning of their power, as the “elite” inevitably morph once more, through the processes of capital accumulation, into the London demographics we might see now: Russian, Chinese, global billionaires, living in and among the remnants of empire.
It seems somehow fitting that Cumberbatch read a poem for the fragmented remains of a man accidentally discovered in a car park in Leicester. Cumberbatch was tenuously introduced as “a cousin of Richard”, before reading a poem written for the occasion by Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. There was no incense burning but Cumberbatch delivered a censer full of romanticism to intoxicate the nation. Watching the funeral service live on television made me want to read a Raoul Hausmann sound poem over a discarded KFC party bucket full of chicken bones, before burying it somewhere random, weeping uncontrollably.
Of course, this was not a “state” funeral with the full Royal Family in attendance; they are well advised of the risk of people like me pointing fingers, and so sent some minor players along, to be simultaneously present and not-present. Neat trick.
Julian Fellowes, writer of the vastly influential English heritage fantasy Downton Abbey, sat on the sofa to comment on the burial during its live broadcast to the nation. His very presence, along with Cumberbatch, unconsciously attached the re-burial of Richard III’s remains to the equally fragmented patriarchal, monarchical, Christian, conservative, white upper class vision of Britain, right at the moment when it is becoming remnants, with the recent near-devolution of Scotland, and future challenges looming.
As the German philosopher Walter Benjamin explained, to really seize hold of the past is to grab an image of it in a moment of crisis. The televised re-burial was full of such images of desperation. We could focus in to see the controversy of a ceremony for a Catholic king in an Anglican church, but the city of Leicester itself, the most multicultural city in Britain, was the larger complexity being masked and suppressed by this fantastical imperialist performance.
This is not a conspiracy theory, nor is it even a complicity theory. These rituals are no different to science fiction, and science fiction is not about some future time, or distant galaxies, but the here and now. The re-burial of Richard III is not about the past either. The author Mark Fisher writes about dyschromia, popular culture constructed from decontextualised bits of the past. But this is nothing new. The past of Richard III was also symbolically constructed from scraps of other times and places. As I watched the purple-robed priests by the TV celebrities and khaki-clad pallbearers, I may as well have been watching a Nambikwara rite-of-passage in the Amazon.
This, for me, wasn’t evidence of the persistence of “postmodernism”, here was proof that it is still both possible and worthwhile to be an anthropologist in your own country.