Are ye going to Tewkesbury Fayre?

dog face bascinetI spent last weekend at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival helping my brother promote his new book, Kings Man, the third in his series The Outlaw Chronicles about Robin Hood. The festival is held to commemorate the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. This was the final battle of the Wars of the Roses in which Prince Edward, the heir to the House of Lancaster, was killed.

During the festival, the whole town is decked out in medieval flags and the streets throng with knights in armour and medieval re-enactors. It all culminates with a big battle down by the river on the historic battleground. A riot of cannons, men at arms and pikes as the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies clash. It is a big festival which has been going for 25 years but there are plenty of others which are popping up all over the place; not just in Britain but in France, Belgium and Eastern Europe too.

Historical re-enactment is a booming market these days. At the Tewksbury festival there are countless traders stalls selling medieval gear; hauberks, hose, vambraces, gauntlets, broadswords, smocks and jerkins. Fancy something special for the weekend ? How about a dog faced bascinet? There are so many different stalls it finally dawns on you that this is a big business. You have stumbled upon an underground fetish scene; not sexual but cultural. And it’s coming out of the closet to a town near you!

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
Re-enactors at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

The big question is this: why is it suddenly so popular? The answer, although an oblique one, is in the title of a new exhibition that has just been announced at the V&A Museum: Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. Yes – notice that last date! This is a retrospective exhibition. That means postmodernism is officially over.

Post modernism was always a difficult concept since it sounds like something “after the future” and how can some thing be after a future that has not happened yet? The best way to explain it is like this. Modernism, as an artistic movement, had a tremendous sense of earnest optimism about the future. It believed that art could morally improve people; that a modernist skyscraper could improve your life. Postmodernism went in the opposite direction, not optimistic but ironic, not earnest but mocking. So where can you go next ? What is post postmodernism? After the earnest futurism and then the ironic futurism what is the next stage in the cycle? Logic dictates it must be the earnest past.

And lo, the pop charts are filled with folk music again. Mumford & Sons and The Arcade Fire are the hot new groups. And the streets of Tewkesbury overflow with people dressed in medieval tunics seeking community in the past: a secular commonality from a shared history to soothe the fits and agues of the modern world. Anywhere else, you would be arrested for wandering the streets after dark with a four foot blade in your hands. At the Tewkesbury festival, the pubs are welcoming you in for another drink.

You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in. Well, there I am in a pub dressed in a monk’s habit with a Spanish guy dressed as an elegant nobleman to my left and a French bloke in a man at arms outfit to my right. I am pointing at my costume and trying to explain a joke about ‘dirty habits’ but it does not come out so well in the translation…and suddenly it hits me. I am in a pre-national Europe. In 1471, there were no nation states. There were powerful barons, principalities, duchies and territories in a complex patchwork throughout Europe. Henry VI, King of England was also, for 30 years, the King of France too. Countries, as we know them today, did not exist. The Nation State, level four in the hierarchy that goes up from individual to family to community, does not yet exist.

And right there, in the beery good cheer of a friendly pub, surrounded by Europeans in fancy dress it strikes me that there is nothing to fear about a federated Europe. Maybe the time has come for the post Nation State, a return to a complex patchwork of entities under an EU umbrella. The resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis will be to push us all in that direction. Maybe the V&A museum will soon hold a retrospective exhibition called The European Nation State – Power at the 4th degree 1648 – 2018. After all, we do share the same values, the same history, and since I got the phone number from the elegant Spaniard, the same medieval outfitter too…

Phone Hacking? Catataxis!

Light brigade and phone hackingI remember when at university having a heated debate about the ethics of photojournalism. This was the issue. Imagine you are a photographer covering the Vietnam War. You see the slumped body of a dead GI on the road beside a paddy field. The sun is setting. You can’t resist the temptation to reach out and pull up the collar of his shirt to make a tableau of exquisite dishevelment ….and SNAP….in the dying rays of the sun you capture that perfect picture. One beautifully composed frame that says everything you could ever want to say about the horror and futility of war.Now comes the ethical question. Is it morally right to pull up that shirt collar? Some say yes. If that helps to get the point across then it is perfectly justified. The art of photography is act of visual selection. You force people to isolate and focus on what you decided they should focus on. You are using all the tricks of aperture, exposure and depth of field to make them see what you want them to see. Where is the harm in a little set dressing. Is that not just the natural extension of your other camera techniques. Every photo is just a subjective moment of reality captured on celluloid, after all.

But some say no. The point of photojournalism is objectivity. You are there to report the facts not to tamper with them. So pulling up the collar on the dead GI breaks the solemn compact between the journalist and the readership. Your role is to silently observe and document the facts, not to mould reality until it fits the contours  of your personal perspective. You must be veracity’s evangelist; the unobtrusive monitor of truth.

Technology changes things. William Russell (1820-1907), the world’s first war correspondent with The Times covered the Crimean war. His dispatches from the front had a huge impact on the public who were shocked and outraged by what they read about the appalling treatment of the troops. A huge public backlash demanded that something should be done. But, of course, there were no photographs. It was artists who visually immortalised the Charge of the Light Brigade. Painted several years after the fact, their heroic pictures bore little resemblance to the reality of what had actually happened.  It was not until the invention of light portable cameras that photojournalists could capture the brutal glamour of World War 2 as it really was. Later, TV cameras captured the horror of the Vietnam War and delivered it charred and bloody like a rare T bone steak to the voracious homes of the American public. That public was, yet again, shocked and horrified and demanded that something should be done. The ethics of the new technology were clear: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.

Now we have newer technology. The internet, social media, mobile phones and twitter. What should a journalist do when observing this vast digital shunting yard of packet switched data? Maybe the same as before: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.  If so, then phone hacking is morally acceptable. Silent monitoring in the background to establish the truth; is that not what we want our journalists to do? Ever since Watergate did we not anoint them as the watchdogs of liberty. Politicians have their secret services to ‘protect’ us. But we want our journalists to keep a check on the politicos. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Why, the journalists do. If Secret Services can monitor phone calls, then why not the journalists too.

Ah yes, you might say, but what about the principal of privacy? Is that not an essential human right?  To put the question in another way: is information in the ether in the public or private domain? Can cyberspace ever be personal? My answer is this: to believe so is to make a catataxic blunder.  Cyberspace occupies a realm beyond the personal. Information wants to be free, and Wikileaks wants to liberate it. Every mobile phone call, text or tweet you make is a geo-located pinprick of emotional luminance. Step back and marvel at that galaxy of starlight. Should not the journalists chart those heavens like the early astronomers at their telescopes. We are stardust, and our mobile phones calls even more so.

To end, we return to where we first started. The quintessential Vietnam movie is Apocalypse Now: a fusion of Joseph Conrad, helicopters and paddy fields. In my view, the information age obliterates the personal, but this is not a bad thing. In the mighty torrential Congo of digital effluvient, we are not battling upstream to a ‘Heart of Darkness’ but downstream to the open ocean and, beyond that, to a glorious far horizon of freedom, which is a freedom beyond bounds…

Husserl’s missing bits

Take a look at this advert for Fentimans Ginger Beer. Fentimans is a botanical brewery based in the North of England which produces a range of unusual drinks based on vegetable roots like burdock, dandelion and ginger. Their advertising is unusual too. When you first see the ad on the left, you think some one has made a mistake. Your eye is drawn to it. Then you realise that it is a deliberate cropping which is quite cunning. Although they only show a quarter of the bottle our minds fill in the rest. So they are effectively getting a full page ad for the price of a quarter of a page. Even better,  they are making us interact imaginatively with their brand in the act of completing the picture. And they are even able to make a joke out of it. So that is a triple plus in my book.

This  “missing part” trick seems to be becoming more popular. A lot of corporate logos these days seem to be a portion of a letter. Look at the three below. The first is the logo for Global Radio, the owner of several radio stations such as Heart, Capital and Classic FM. It’s a ‘g’ with the bottom part cropped off. Then look at the blue logo next to it for Bestway, a London based cash and carry chain. It’s the same trick but with the cropping at the top. The red logo at the end is for Adecco, an employment agency. They have taken the final ‘o’ of their name and only shown a quarter of it. It is so heavily cropped that it is almost an abstract figure. On the other hand,  if you were to reconstruct the whole word in your imagination you would get a sign 24 times bigger sticking way out into the street. Now that’s bang for your buck!


These logos echo the thinking of Edmund Husserl (1859 – 1938), the founder of a philosophical movement known as Phenomenology. In the long running debate amongst philosophers about whether the real world actually exists or is just a figment of our imagination, Husserl had an interesting conclusion: it’s both. I can  crudely paraphrase this deep thinker with the following example. If you are standing in the street looking at a house you can only see the front of it, but you believe that the back of it exists even if you can’t see it. In other words, you think  it is a real house rather than, say, a flat piece of scenery from a film set. So the reality of the house arises partly from our direct experience and partly from our inference. As with the Fentimans advert, the world is half real and half filled in by our imagination. It is a fusion between two different levels, the tangible and the intangible. That is catataxis.