There are several legends regarding what might happen if and when Britain comes to the point of its ultimate crisis.
One is that the ravens will abandon the Tower of London, thus causing its walls – and, indeed, the entire country – to collapse. But rejoice, this particular catastrophe has been averted, if only just, by the recent arrival of baby ravens!
(Coming soon to a social media platform near you: baby raven birther conspiracy theories.)
Then there’s the one about the return of King Arthur and his knights, said to be slumbering in a cave until their country calls them in its hour of direst need.
Now, you can call me an old-fashioned fuddy duddy, but somehow I can’t see a possibly mythical sixth century warlord whose entire raison d’etre was slaughtering European immigrants being much use when it comes to sorting out potential technological solutions to the Irish border problem.
And then there’s Drake’s drum, which is meant to beat when, umm, the country recalls the vain, virulently anti-Catholic, slave trading old seadog in its hour of direst need, presumably to compete with King Arthur in the final of Britain’s Got Mythical National Saviours.
At this point, let me state unequivocally that the content of this post up to this point is not connected in any way to the recent European election results in the UK, nor to the fact that the UK is currently due to leave the EU on 31 October, come what may. As you know, you’ll never get politics on this blog, and certainly not the B-word.
However, it may be worth noting that even if Drake’s drum is beating like crazy at the moment, it’s very unlikely that anyone will hear it – least of all old Sir Francis, sleeping ‘in his hammock an’ a thousand mile away / (Capten, art tha sleepin’ there below?) / Slung atween the roundshot in Nombre Dios bay / An’ dreamin’ arl the time o’ Plymouth Hoe’. This is because the drum is currently locked away in some storeroom or other, having recently been moved from its home of over half a century, Buckland Abbey, the former monastic estate that Drake purchased. Why? Well, the drum was owned for all that time by Plymouth museum, and they’ve now recalled it for eventual display in their new facility, opening next year, of which more below. (It’s worth pointing out here that the drum in question is a replica – the real one has been in storage for many years in any case, so either way, the country is totally done for.) That’s left a literal and metaphorical hole in the story being presented at Buckland itself; without its most iconic item, what can the house offer to its visitors? It was this thorny question that took me to Buckland last week, to join a workshop containing National Trust staff and volunteers, fellow naval historians, and other interested parties, the whole being co-ordinated by those behind the University of Oxford’s splendid ‘Making Maritime Memories’ project.
(Warning – grumpy old man rant and digression follows; you may wish to skip to the end of the next paragraph.)
The new facility in Plymouth, alluded to above, will contain a museum, the archives, and lots of exciting features, such as a stunning collection of naval figureheads. The city undoubtedly needs such an asset, and clearly always has in the forty-odd years that I’ve known it well – its lack of recognition of its naval heritage, certainly when compared to Portsmouth, has been a much-discussed issue in the area, and in maritime history circles, for many years. Now, you might think that it would make sense to call this new building something like the Plymouth History Centre – but no, in this day and age, you can’t have monikers that actually tell you what a place is and what it contains. Instead, you’ve got to have some right-on name conceived by one of the lesser crew members of the B Ark (see here if you don’t get that analogy), which bears as little resemblance as possible to the actual purpose of the building and the heritage of the area. So the new facility in Plymouth is named The Box. Let me repeat that. The Box. Good people of Plymouth, you know what you have to do: if enough people start calling it The Coffin, they might give it a more sensible name after all.
Anyway, regardless of what it’s called, that’s where Buckland’s Drake’s Drum will be housed from now on. So how can the house itself adapt? Moreover, how can it tell the story of both Sir Francis Drake and the estate itself? We spent a very enjoyable day discussing these issues, as well as exploring this astonishingly complex building. (By coincidence, Buckland was one of the two buildings on which I principally modelled Matthew Quinton’s ancestral home, Ravensden Abbey, in my series ‘the journals of Matthew Quinton’.) Clearly, aspects of Drake’s career are troubling to modern sensibilities, notably his involvement in slavery and his religious bigotry, so the old ‘hero narrative’ alone won’t serve any more; I’m actually wrestling with all of this myself at the moment, as Drake is quite a central character in the book I’m currently writing, the second in my new Tudor naval trilogy, and he’s not an easy man to portray. There’s also been an overwhelming focus on him and him alone, thus neglecting other family members, several of whom also had fascinating histories (and were invariably also named Francis Drake), not to mention the history of the abbey, its monks and its surrounding estate. Above all, there’s been an almost completion omission of the stories of the women associated with the house, including Drake’s two wives, the second of whom must have effectively run the estate for very long periods while her husband was at sea.
Of course, this isn’t a story unique to Buckland. Many ‘stately homes’ and other institutions are coming to terms with questions of how they can present what might sometimes be quite problematic pasts, and how they can broaden the stories they tell. Indeed, the ‘Making Maritime Memories’ project has addressed an important aspect of this; many National Trust properties, for example, have strong maritime elements within their histories, but these have sometimes not been emphasised, perhaps because their staff and volunteers lack the necessary information, perhaps because someone, at some time, decided that the story presented about a particular property should concentrate on aspects A and B, and neglect or ignore aspects C, D and E. But common sense and our own experience tells us that life isn’t like that. All buildings, all institutions, and indeed all individuals, have multiple narratives, as Rabbie Burns reminds us – ‘to see ourselves as others see us’ simply means that while we might want to tell one story about ourselves, others will be telling very different ones. So I wish the staff and volunteers at Buckland well as they develop their new, drum-less narratives; and while, yes, I’ll definitely go and have a look around Plymouth’s new Box when it opens, I, for one, am never going to grace it with that name!