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Howard Anglin: The great epics endure in our small, local lives

Commentary

Taking an early train from Oxford to London last month, I settled into my seat and gratefully rested my eyes. If I slept, it wasn’t for long and I opened my eyes again just in time to see a small village slip by, a cluster of houses and the square tower of a Norman church. I consulted my phone and saw the name Cholsey receding from the blue dot that tracked my train’s progress across the map.

What had happened in Cholsey, I wondered, entering the name into the search engine.

The Domesday book records 22 villagers, 100 cottagers, and 15 slaves in the year 1086. Before that, it was an Anglo-Saxon settlement owned by the royal House of Wessex, a Viking raiding camp, and a Roman town with a substantial villa, barns, and a burial ground. There is evidence of an earlier Bronze Age settlement. Three millennia in three paragraphs.

Secondary sources filled in some rough details.

We don’t know much about Saint Wilgyth, but she was venerated locally from the 6th century, around the time the settlement, then an island in the Thames marshes, was called “Ceol’s Isle” after the usurper King Ceol. In the 10th century, a royal nunnery was founded as expiation for the murder of another King, Edward the Martyr. The church I saw from the train mostly dates to the 12th century but bears traces of Saxon masonry. In the 13th century the village tithe barn was the largest aisled building in the world, more than 50 feet high and 300 feet long. In 2011, the Victorian County Lunatic Asylum, once grim home to 1,000 souls, was converted to apartments.

The village has an outsize literary presence. Agatha Christie, still the best-selling fiction writer in history, is buried in the church graveyard, and future Poet Laureate John Masefield lived on a local farm during the first world war. The century before that is captured in an entertaining book titled Crime and Calamity in Cholsey: Life in a Berkshire Village 1819-1919, which chronicles four generations of theft, murder, infanticide, sudden death, riots, slander, debt, exile, marriage, adultery, bastardy, suicide, insanity, war, and heroism within the parish. I read it in an evening.

There was the Victorian curate, a godson of the King of Prussia, who fought at Tel-El-Kebir, seduced a local school mistress, and ran up extravagant gambling debts before abandoning his family and fleeing to South America; the four Ilsey brothers, all criminals, three of whom ended their lives more or less respectably in Australia; violent clashes between labourers and landowners after the Enclosure Acts put up literal walls between the classes; and the conscientious objector who went to prison for his principles, relented, and died of dysentery in Dar-es-Salaam. The reformed “conchie” is one of 41 Cholsey men whose death is commemorated on the village Roll of Honour for the Great War, out of 376 military-aged men in the village. His posthumous medals were delivered by post to his mother’s house along with a bronze plaque solemnly recording that he had died shitting himself in a distant port “for Freedom and Honour.”

What had happened in Cholsey? Everything. The cycle of life, death, and rebirth, revolving through seasons, years, and generations since before written history.

In the poem Epic, Patrick Kavanagh writes, with self-conscious irony:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided, who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

Raised in rural County Monaghan, the young Kavanagh wore his rusticity uncomfortably in the literary circles of London and Dublin, and the speaker of Epic is reluctant to compare a row between the Duffys and the Macabes to Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler (“the Munich bother”) until Homer’s ghost reminds him that the human tragicomedy is enacted by farmers as well as statesmen. “I made the Iliad from such / A local row,” says the ghost.

“I made the Iliad from such / A local row.”

It is one of those lines that knocked me sideways the first time I read it. To see the universal in the local and the local in the universal requires just a subtle shift in perspective. To see them simultaneously is the gift of art.

Epic stories are timeless because they never end. A feud over the boundary of a field can be freighted with the gravity of mythology. There is a Helen at every county fair, and always a hapless Paris at her heels. The models for Achilles, Ajax, Hector, and Priam were local men: proud, petty, brash, and noble, no different than the men at the same time on the future site of Cholsey. According to the excavations at Hisarlik, the “topless towers of Ilium” were 30 feet high. They would have been overshadowed by Cholsey’s medieval tithe barn.

All human settlements are hero-haunted. Flying back from London to Vancouver for Christmas, the flightpath entered Canada over Baffin Island, site of sagas told in Viking halls, and ended beside an ocean where, long before the arrival of Europeans, local nations told their own legends around longhouse fires.

An hour or so before landing, I looked out the window at the Canadian prairies. The snow below was smooth, like white glue spilled over the fields on which a skin had begun to set. Straight roads cut thin lines across the white, and where two roads crossed, there was a town. I was not able to look it up this time, but if I had, I have no doubt I would have found the same people I found in Cholsey, both long and recently departed, already transmuting into legend in local memory.

We recently passed through the dead of winter, solsitio brumali, and in the turning of the year, as we move from darkness back into light, we know that this has all happened before. Our lives are stories that were told around campfires in Ur. Plague, fire, floods, and tyranny: they are the setting of our oldest tales. Tales of destruction and of renewal, of despair in this world and hope beyond it. The epic quarrel is re-engaged over suburban fences, and the epic hero is reborn in every child, here as in Cholsey or Troy.

Fred McMahon: Unrest in Kazakhstan has global implications—here’s why

Commentary

International events are linked in complicated ways. Taiwan’s future may lie in Ukraine, whose own future may be determined in Kazakhstan.

All three are under threat. Russia has intervened in Kazakhstan and built up forces on the Ukraine border. The Chinese Communist Party has intensified its threat to invade Taiwan. Supreme leader Xi Jinping has made it clear the CCP will have its way with Taiwan and has the physical prowess to do so.

Russia’s claims on Ukraine and China’s on Taiwan are similar, though with significant historical differences. Both contend the smaller country is a breakaway part of the motherland. Both threaten military action to “restore” the nation.

How could Ukraine developments affect the CCP’s designs on Taiwan? Here are some scenarios. 

Russia invades Ukraine yet again, adds to its 2014 land grab of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, scores easy victories, and suffers few consequences. If this happens, CCP warships would fuel up and stock armaments. The CCP would take this as a lesson that a huge modern force can quickly overwhelm a smaller adversary and that the world will not stand up.

Next scenario. Russian troops bog down and heroic defenders inflict serious damage. Fearing a similar result in Taiwan, the CCP might reconsider the ease of invasion and pause longer than it might otherwise.

Or, say, regardless of whether the invasion succeeds, the international reaction is furious and effective, leading to economic hardship in Russia and discontent that threatens the regime. If the invasion gets bloody and bogged down, popular revulsion with Russian soldiers coming home in body bags would magnify discontent. If this weakened or led to the fall of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, red lights would be flashing in Beijing.

Nothing is more important to the CCP than survival and power. The CCP has broader and more effective control over its population than Putin does over his. But if the world effectively stands up to Putin, paranoia and fear of the same for the CCP might force Xi to push Taiwan “reunification” (Taiwan has never been part of China) to the back burner where it has been for most of the CCP’s reign. 

However, perhaps the CCP will not have a real-life invasion of Ukraine from which to learn. Unrest and violence in Kazakhstan took the world and Putin by surprise. Putin has deployed thousands of Russian troops to Kazakhstan to protect its fragile dictatorship.

One lesson Putin (and the CPP) might take from the fall of the Soviet Union is that it had overextended itself and the strain and cost of restive regions took a toll that may not have caused the fall but at least contributed to it.

Kazakhstan is the size of Western Europe. Its border with Russia is the second-longest in the world, 7,644 kilometres compared to 8,893 kilometres between Canada and the United States. Three-quarters of the population is Muslim and Russia has big problems with its own Muslim regions.

Revolt in Kazakhstan threatens Russia and could spill over the border. Suppression could be costly. Unrest is growing in the other Stans—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and even the once stable Kyrgyzstan. All were under Soviet domination, are part of Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization, and, though they don’t border Russia, their instability would increase trouble in the neighbourhood.

Then, there’s the 2020 defeat of Russian ally Armenia by the predominantly Muslim (though mostly tolerant) Azerbaijan, NATO’s planned build-up in Europe, and lingering anger in Georgia about Russia’s 2008 annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Now throw in Kazakhstan, its huge size and lengthy border, and even Putin might be deterred from an adventure in Ukraine. But flip the coin. If things go easy for Putin in Kazakhstan—and it looks like things have gone very easy for him—other leaders in the Stans will know who’s boss, magnifying Putin’s hubris.

Nothing is certain when dealing with a dictator whose whims change by the minute. But for free nations one thing should be certain—if Russia lops off more of Ukraine, the pushback must be furious. Freedom and self-determination are at stake not only in Ukraine but also in Taiwan—and perhaps many other places.