The Spirit of Not Dead Fred

I am not dead yet

I can dance and I can sing

I am not dead yet

I can do the Highland Fling

(‘Not Dead Fred’ from Spamalot)

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities presented by overlaps between generations. This might have been partly a consequence of the odd generational quirks within my own family: because my grandfather’s formidable brood of siblings (of whom more in a future post) were born twenty-two years apart, my father had a first cousin who was a year younger than me, and there were similar oddities on my mother’s side. Even more marked generational shifts often characterise the complex family lives of aged rock stars, actors and the like, whose children by very late marriages are sometimes younger than their grandchildren via the first marriage. In a historical sense, though, I think I probably first became fully aware of the implications of these chronological curiosities during a talk given to the J R Green Society during the late 1970s. This was the History society of Jesus College, Oxford, named after the finest historian the college ever produced, and the speaker was Richard Cobb, the eminent historian of the French Revolution. My tutor claimed to have invited Cobb so that we undergraduates had a chance to hear him ‘before he went pop’. His pessimism about Cobb’s likely life expectancy was a consequence of a lifestyle beautifully summed up in this obituary from The Independent:

His style of teaching, talking, drinking, and after-dinner behaviour – chariot racing in Balliol senior common room was the least of his exploits – made this shy, often uneasy man a living legend. Cobb was thin, looked like a cross between Voltaire and George VI, and was once described by a friend as the dirtiest soldier he had ever seen. His eyes were usually drunk, with curiosity or alcohol, but his capacity to recover from the night before was the envy of his students. 

The living legend did indeed become fairly well lubricated that evening, but then, so did we all (the passing of the port decanter was one of the long-standing traditions of the society); and despite my tutor’s pessimism, Cobb survived for the best part of twenty more years. I can’t remember most of what he talked about, although whether that can be attributed to the passing of the years or the passing of the port is debatable. However, he related one anecdote which made a lasting impression on me. I forget the precise connections, but it was something along these lines: as a child (he was born in 1917), he knew or was related to an elderly person who, in turn, as a child had known a very, very old lady who remembered watching Bonnie Prince Charlie ride into Edinburgh in 1745. As a good historian, I assume Cobb built in the obvious cautionary warnings about depending on the unsupported memories or, indeed, the words themselves, of two very old people; but his essential point was that it was chronologically possible to be just two degrees of separation away from an event that seemed impossibly far back in time, or in other words, that the past is closer to us than we might think.

Cobb’s anecdote had a lasting impact on both my teaching and my writing. Back in the 1990s, for example, I used to infuriate generations of students by asking them when they thought the last widow of an American Civil War soldier died; of course, it was a trick question, because she was still alive (in fact, the two candidates for the title of Last Confederate Widow died as recently as 2004 and  2008). For all its faults, the dreaded Wikipedia occasionally throws up some fascinating individual pages, and one of them is its list of the last known survivors of major wars. This includes quite a few pretty dubious candidates – Joseph Sutherland, shown as the last British survivor of Trafalgar, doesn’t appear on the listings of those who fought in the battle – but also presents some intriguing claims: was William Hiseland really the last survivor of the British civil wars, dying in 1733 aged 112 (after fighting at Malplaquet at the age of 89)? if Sir Richard Haddock, who served every regime from the Rump Parliament to George I, really was the last surviving veteran of the first Anglo-Dutch war (which I very much doubt), who were the last survivors of the second and third?

But these long-lived survivors are more than mere curiosities; they also represent embodiments of communal memory, as Harry Patch, Henry Allingham and the other last survivors of World War One came to do. For instance, Samuel Pepys often called on Sir Richard Haddock for his recollections of precedents from the 1650s (or even earlier, for Haddock’s grandfather served in Elizabeth’s reign). At one time, too, the wisdom and example of previous generations was deliberately called upon to inspire new generations. In Britannia’s Dragon I relate how, one day in the 1890s, a party of young naval cadets was taken to see Admiral Henry James Raby, the first man ever to wear the Victoria Cross. One of them was duly inspired by the old hero, and recorded the fact in his autobiography: he was to become Admiral of the Fleet Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, one of Britain’s greatest naval officers of World War Two.

Similarly, people whom one associates entirely with one era have a disconcerting habit of living on into others. A classic pub quiz round involves giving teams a list of people and asking them whether they’re alive or dead; I once foundered disastrously on Kirk Douglas, having erroneously assumed that he must have shuffled off the mortal coil years ago. (And long may the great man, star of one of my favourite films – The Vikings – continue to grace us with his presence.) The facts that Herbert Hoover outlived John F Kennedy and that Thomas Hardy was around when the BBC began broadcasting still seem downright bizarre. Then again, I once had the privilege of being shown the Imperial Crypt in Farnham, where the Emperor Napoleon III, his wife and son are buried. It was only then that I realised the Empress Eugenie had lived on until 1920, having survived her husband by almost half a century and having lived through the whole of World War I. (Empress longevity is clearly endemic: Zita, last Empress of Austria-Hungary, died as recently as 1989, the last grandchild of the Queen-Empress Victoria died six months before Charles and Diana got married, and, of course, the last Empress of India – the Queen Mother – lived on into the twenty-first century.)

When I came to write the Quinton Journals, all of these perspectives on ‘overlapping’ generations helped to shape my portrayal of Matthew’s character. He’s meant to be writing in the late 1720s when he’s in his late eighties, but can clearly recall his grandfather, who fought against the Spanish Armada (old Earl Matthew’s life dates were based closely on those of the real last surviving Armada captain, Edmund, Earl of Mulgrave, who died at the end of the first Civil War). In that sense, he ‘writes’ very much in the spirit of ‘Not Dead Fred’, although even in his younger days, I don’t think you’d have caught Matthew doing the Highland Fling! Although he was very young when the civil wars took place, Matthew’s life was moulded, and to some extent dominated, by the huge collective trauma of that conflict; indeed, that would have been true of the vast majority of people in the British Isles, and I’ve tried to reflect that in the mindsets of the principal characters in the series. Indeed, when the ‘Exclusion Crisis’ took place in 1679-81, one of the most common cries was ‘Forty-One is come again’ – in other words, that the history of the civil war, which everyone aged about forty-five and over would have remembered, was repeating itself. In my opinion, historical novels should always have this grounding in their own past; after all, as Richard Cobb implied all those years ago, it’s much, much closer than we often think!

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