The Joy of Myth
It’s a refreshing change to come up for air after the intensity of all the Carmarthenshire Archives posts, and to actually blog about something else: something more like the normal fare of this particular website, in fact! (No doubt many of you will be breathing a similar sigh of relief…)
I’m currently heavily engaged in deconstructing assorted historical myths – the Great Fire of London for my next Quinton novel, Death’s Bright Angel, and the mythic ‘ideology’ underpinning the Stuart navy for both my next non-fiction book, Kings of the Sea, and for an essay in an academic book that I’m co-editing, which should see the light of day in a couple of years time. (Some might say that the Carmarthenshire Archives saga has involved a lot of myths too, most of them promulgated by the County Council, but let’s not go there…) As far as the Great Fire goes, I’m particularly interested in the ‘conspiracy theories’ that grew up to explain its outbreak, notably the notion that it was deliberately started by Catholics; indeed, Sir Christopher Wren’s Monument, which still stands in the City of London, carried a huge inscription stating categorically that this was the case from 1681 until 1830, although it was briefly erased in the reign of the Catholic King James II and VII. As for the navy, the rationale put forward by the Stuart monarchs for a powerful fleet, and for claiming the ‘sovereignty of the seas’ over the waters around Britain, was based heavily on a distinctly dodgy reading of some mythic medieval history, notably the reigns of the Saxon Kings Edgar and Alfred (and the Stuarts, after all, gave us one of the nation’s most potent mythical symbols of all, fair Britannia herself).
The great problem with myths, of course, is that they can develop such powerful holds on the popular imagination that they elbow aside the historical realities, and prove impossible to dislodge. Take, for example, the famous story of the Russian troops who were meant to have been seen on British railways in 1914, ‘with snow on their boots’ – completely untrue, yet believed by huge swathes of the population, who either ‘knew a man’ who had seen them or even convinced themselves that they had seen them. Indeed, people positively prefer myths, especially when they pander to a set of political or social preconceptions. In Josephine Tey’s famous novel, The Daughter of Time, the protagonist uses the word ‘Tonypandy’ as shorthand for such myths – referring to the valleys legend that the troops ordered into the town by Winston Churchill in 1910-11 shot dead some of the strikers there. (They didn’t, although they did in my home town of Llanelli.) More contemporary is the crackpot right-wing conviction that the population is some 20 million larger than official records suggest, which follows the classic rule of myths and conspiracy theories: namely, that they should always completely ignore much more plausible, common sense explanations (in this case, that people buy far too much food and then throw lots of it away).
Ultimately, myths are often sexier than the truth, and certainly simpler and easier to grasp than what are often very complex realities. If you don’t believe me, take the following quick ‘would you rather?’ test –
- Would you rather read about Arthur, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table, or the messy reality of the patchy archaological and textual evidence about a sixth century minor warlord who might or might not have existed and who might or might not have been any one out of Welsh, Cornish, Scottish or Breton?
- When you visualise Nelson and Napoleon, do you see two very short men, one of whom had an eyepatch – or the reality, i.e. two men without eyepatches, one of whom (the Corsican guy) was of normal height?
- Would you rather view the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940 as a miraculous epic of heroism, or a catastrophic national humiliation? (My American readers may wish to substitute Pearl Harbor here; but then, they have to put up with multiple mythic versions of their national history that make anything we Brits come up with look like small beer. Here’s arguably the biggest.)
- The Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets, and were interested principally in trade. Or would you prefer this?
- Would you rather accept that most of those who fought in red uniforms at Rorke’s Drift were actually English, or put on the DVD of Zulu yet again and sing along to Men of Harlech?
All of which is a very roundabout introduction to the main subject matter of this week’s post. In Britannia’s Dragon: A Naval History of Wales, I wrote this:
Churchill himself came to Wiseman’s Bridge near Saundersfoot in 1943 to watch the largest of Wales’s mock invasions, Exercise Jantzen, reputedly refreshing himself with a pot of tea in the local pub. An area of 130 square miles from Laugharne to Tenby and north to the A40 became a ‘regulated area’, with strict new controls, including a curfew, imposed on the civilian population for the duration. The exercise took place between 21 July and 6 August. Over 16,000 tons of stores were landed, principally from a fleet of coasters that had sailed from Swansea and Port Talbot, together with over 7,000 men and nearly 600 vehicles. But there was much confusion on the beaches, the ferocious tidal range of Carmarthen Bay presented serious difficulties, and it was discovered that the coasters had been loaded poorly, particularly at Port Talbot, because the men who loaded the ships there were ‘by profession coal trimmers and not used to ordinary merchandise’. Nevertheless, important lessons were learned, notably in terms of how to manage the logistics of a hastily established bridgehead, and these undoubtedly later contributed to the success of D-Day.
Perhaps I should have remembered the old adage that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Admittedly, I did cover myself to some extent by throwing in the word ‘reputedly’, but perhaps I should have deployed a few ‘allegedlys’ as well, especially as I was wandering well outside my comfort zone: or, as the ultimate historian’s cop-out goes, ‘it’s not my period’. I’ve recently been taken to task over my statements about Jantzen, and especially about the supposed presence of Winston Churchill, by a correspondent who’d prefer to remain anonymous, but who’s delved into the subject in some detail over the years. To acknowledge the release of the new Bond film, let’s call my correspondent ‘M’. What follows is some judicious copying and pasting of his emails to me.
About thirty years ago I met the lady at Wisemans Bridge who quite sincerely believed that as a young girl at the Inn she had given Churchill a cup of tea. However, soon after I met an elderly local…who reckoned that she was mistaken, and claimed that the landlord of the Inn had promoted the idea of Churchill’s presence with a view to gaining some commercial benefit from the story at a later date. Churchill allegedly signed a visitors’ book at the Inn, but soon after the relevant page was supposedly removed by someone who saw value in the signature.* Some years later I made an effort to establish the facts and could find no reference to Jantzen in Martin Gilbert’s biography, which seemed to indicate that for part of the period of the exercise Churchill was attending a conference in Quebec. I suppose I should have tried to pursue the issue more, but Jantzen was entirely incidental to my research at the time…
On one of my visits to Kew I dug out a War Office file relating to Jantzen, and it included the diary of an officer who had been involved in planning and executing the exercise. It became clear that it was one exercise amongst others looking at the logisitics and practicality of loading and unloading coasters over an open beach, and at least some of the officers involved seemed to think that the whole thing was an entertaining caper. The diary certainly included references to drinking sessions in an hotel in Swansea! Put another way, the event was not presented as being totally essential to the war effort. Although the exercise was the biggest thing to happen in the Saundersfoot area during WW2, and involved an American contingent, the total number involved was probably less than 10,000. In the circumstances it seemed very unlikely that Churchill would have travelled to Wales for the occasion. That said, I cannot claim to have studied Jantzen very thoroughly, and can only offer this as my present perception of the matter.
If my perception is correct, I think this tale is not only a classic example of myth creation, but also of the extreme difficulty of correcting a myth once it has become established. The basic problem is that the locals believe it is true, and it suits them to assert that it is so. The late landlord of the Wisemans Bridge Inn would seem to have been quite astute. By associating his pub with Churchill in WW2 he was giving the place its own USP for later years. I think the young lady who supposedly gave tea to Churchill was his daughter, who would naturally accept whatever she had been told at the time. I have no idea who was mistaken for Churchill, but perhaps some official from the War Office, or a junior minister, appeared wearing a homburg and looking passably like the PM. We will never know. Suffice to say that the story took hold, and before long became further embellished. I have seen versions of the story suggesting that the exercise involved 100.000 men, and was a full-blown rehearsal for D-Day. It does not require a genius to realise that at the height of the war it would have been impossible to spare so many for such an activity, and even if such numbers had been provided they would have almost doubled the population of Pembrokeshire, and of themselves constituted an extraordinary logistical challenge. Other versions of the story include Gen. Eisenhower (and even Mountbatten) in the cast list. In fairness, I think Eisenhower did inspect American troops in Tenby in April, 1944, but that visit had nothing to do with Jantzen.
I present M’s commentary without any additional analysis or comment from me; as he says, it may be that the family of those originally involved, or local historians of the Saundersfoot area, would have different evidence, a different perspective, and an urge to prove the truth of the story – and if any of them read this, and do so, then you have an open invitation to send me a response, and I’ll happily post it on this site.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the section I’ve asterisked * bears a startling resemblance to another great Welsh myth, namely that Kaiser Wilhelm II stayed incognito at the Lake Hotel, Llangammarch Wells, in September 1912, signing himself in the visitors’ book under one of his subsidiary titles, ‘Prince Munster’. I once contemplated writing a novel based on this, and did a little preliminary research on the matter – which established that at the time in question, the Kaiser’s movements were being reported daily in the German press, and that all of those movements took place well within the borders of the Reich. For example, he attended a large military parade in Berlin on 31 August, paid a visit of a few days to Switzerland in the following week, attended a review of 60,000 troops on the 9th, reviewed the navy at Wilhelmshaven on the 16th…and so on, with no possible interval during which he could have suddenly decamped to Powys and made it back again without anybody noticing. True, I could have tried to write a novel about a ‘ringer’ being sent to Wales – but unfortunately, Jack Higgins colonised that territory long ago with The Eagle Has Landed. But again, if there’s somebody out there who thinks they can prove that the ‘Kaiser in Wales’ story is true, the floor, i.e. this blog, is yours – and I’d be delighted if you could, because then I could carry on working up that idea for a novel. It was a belter, too.