Ever since JRR Tolkien called the Celts a “magic bag into which anything could be tossed and anything retrieved”, Celtic studies have struggled to escape what he called their “fabulous twilight”. For outsiders this can be a voyage of fascinating discovery, for insiders often a painful argument, fueled by the revolution of DNA archaeology. This is the argument I narrate in the first half of my Celts: A sceptical history.
The broad conclusion is clear. The overwhelming weight of scholarship is with Tolkien. From Grahame Clark and Colin Renfrew in the 1960s to Barry Cunliffe, John Koch, Stephen Oppenheimer, Simon James and others today, academics have come to regard as facile the idea of a coherent tribe of “Celts” charging across Europe until left clinging to its western shores. It was the product of eighteenth-century mythmaking and nineteenth-century ethnic stereotyping. The anthropologist Malcolm Chapman even proposed the name be banned. As Tolkien was brilliantly to fantasize, Celts are best left to Middle-earth.
They at least have their Sauron in Aberystwyth’s Patrick Sims-Williams. His response to my scepticism is that of the foundation rhetoric of the British Isles (July 1). This has the islands overwhelmed and repopulated by “Celts” in the first millennium BC, only for them to become victims in the turn of “ethnic cleansing” and “cultural genocide” by conquering Saxons in the fifth century AD. It is still taught in schools.
Of course, revisionism has rough edges, not least Sims-Williams citing the claim of Harvard’s Reich Laboratory in 2018 that skeletons suggest Britain saw a “90 per cent population replacement” in about 1,000 BC. This was hotly debated by Cunliffe and others, and conflicted with most genetic evidence. This is that the majority of Britons date back to the Mesolithic period in a relatively stable continuity.
As for Sims-Williams’s dismissal of the now widespread debunking of a Saxon genocide, he cannot have read Susan Oosterhuizen’s 2019 study of the evidence, or total lack of it. While there were raids and settlements, the idea of the eradication and replacement of millions of “eastern Celts” in barely a century after Rome’s departure is enduring fantasy. As Jared Diamond has suggested, it would have required a holocaust more fitting the age of “guns, germs and steel”. Post-Roman England is now thought to have enjoyed a period of relative stability.
I am therefore not a “fantasist” in finding it implausible that easterners spoke a Celtic language under the Romans, then switched almost overnight to a Germanic one. Ideas of an “early English” round the North Sea by Peter Forster and Peter Schrijver, among others, are reasonable. As for Sims-Williams citing in aid inscriptions, they do indeed raise puzzling questions, but inscriptions traveled light.
Conjecture is what makes “prehistory” so intriguing. It may be irritating for a conservative academic to have the laity intrude on his terrain, but the joy of history is universal. It lies in watching the past shift from impossible to implausible to sometimes even probable. Nothing is more dangerous than a closed mind.
Tom Sperlinger praises Nur Masalha’s book Palestine across Millennia (In Brief, June 10), whose wholly anachronistic premiss is that everything that occurred within the borders of British Mandatory Palestine down the millennia is inherently Palestinian in the modern nationalist sense, even though that is a post-1919 term, of course, and , more substantively, that identity did not exist until even later. By this logic Jerusalem’s Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed, is a “triumphalist monument to the rise of modern Zionism”, whereas, Sperlinger argues, the scrolls reflect the “mixed multicultural and multilinguistic heritage of ancient Palestine”, Rather than anything Hebraic or Jewish, let alone Israeli. By such reasoning Field Marshal Allenby was a fine Palestinian cavalry general.
Sperlinger’s long final paragraph on Khalil Sakakini, described as a model humanist as well as an educational reformer, is akin to describing Reinhard Heydrich as a fine violinist. Inter alia, al-Sakakini called on his fellows to bomb and shoot the British and Jewish invaders, torch Jewish fields and orange groves, and ambush traffic routine. He praised a grenade attack on a Jewish civilian train, and another on Jerusalem’s Edison cinema that left three dead.
He also became a vehement Nazi sympathizer when Rommel was advancing, ie when it mattered. According to Tom Segev, “Sakakini, the humanist educator, came to believe that Nazi Germany might weaken Britain and thereby liberate Palestine from the Jews. So he supported the Nazis … Hitler had opened the world’s eyes, Sakakini wrote … The Germans had been the first to stand up to the Jews and were not afraid of them” (One Palestine, Completep411).
Edward N. Luttwak
Chevy Chase MD
A sidelight on the Cato Street conspiracy (June 17). In researching my book The Final Curtain: The art of dying on stage (Anthem Press), I discovered that the tragedian Edmund Kean drew on the conspirators for the death of his Richard III. He sat up the night before their execution opposite the Debtors’ Door of the Old Bailey to watch them on their way to the scaffold. “I want to die like Thistlewood”, he said, “and tonight I’ll imitate every muscle of that man’s countenance.”
Tufts University, Medford MA
Who’s in, who’s out
Terry Eagleton’s comments evaluating Geoff Dyer’s tastes in The Last Days of Roger Federer (July 1) reminded me of Stephen Potter’s “OK Literary Names”: ie who is voguish and who is out. Eagleton says Dyer has a “properly low opinion” of Anthony Powell’s Dance series and is “rightly unenthused” by PG Wodehouse, both authors I happen to much like. Elsewhere in Potter’s Lifemanship series comes another link to Dyer, who says Clint Eastwood, in Where Eagles Dare, pulls off the feat of squinting in German (in “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy”). Likewise, Potter has Gatling-Fenn musing in French to achieve fleeting social superiority at a house party. The thought bubble above his amiably vacant countenance as he reposes in his chair irrelevantly asks: “Où est la plume de ma tante?“.
Lisa Hilton, in her review of Abel Quentin’s Le Voyant d’Étampes (June 24), stresses the symbolic significance of the sexagenerian narrator meeting incomprehension when he asks in Paris for Suze, made from gentian root, in a novel where roots of various sort are central, a point taken up by Neil Cooper (Letters, July 1). Symbolism here seems to have outrun realism. Although the popularity of the drink was at its peak between the two world wars (when it notably sponsored the Tour de France), it is still widely drunk. I learned to appreciate it when working in Le Touquet in the summers of 1961 and 1962, mistakenly thinking it was a drink, but found no difficulty in obtaining it in Paris, and more recently in Montpellier. Last month in Toulon the barman serving it to me was surprised only that an obvious foreigner was ordering it.
The great inflation
Kenneth Rogoff’s review of two books about central banks’ influence on the economy (July 1) is complex and sophisticated, but too narrow. He uses the word “progressive” as a pejorative and leaves out some of the weird policies of the passionately anti-progressive previous US administration and their effect on current inflation: 1. trade war with China (with its disruption of supply chains); 2. regressive tax policies; and 3. too-close ties with the petrostates. The past thirty years of China’s pitch to become the shop floor for the world prices on all manufactured goods, simultaneously reduced hundreds of millions of Asians (in China, India, Vietnam and other countries that caught the wave) out of poverty. China’s rise depleted the stock of manufacturing jobs in the US and other developed, but the cost of T-shirts and televisions fell to balance the adverse effect on most of the US population. Rogoff hardly mentions the costly supply-chain disruption that was triggered by the China trade war and, as magnified by the pandemic, still plays a large part in inflation. The tariffs on Chinese goods also obviously inflate the price of those goods. Reducing tax rates for the wealthy throws cash into the market for consumer goods and, more importantly, financial assets, which, despite recent setbacks, have arguably experienced more inflation than consumer goods or gasoline. The cosiness of the Trump administration with Russia may have enabled Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, which seems to have become profitable for Russia (and Saudi Arabia), since the war contributed to the rise in the price of oil, more important to Russia than trade of manufactured goods.
Rogoff fails to mention the cash giveaways in response to the pandemic, including cash payments to individuals and Paycheck Protection loans, a reasonable if heavily abused policy with inflationary consequences. Another key aspect of the current worldwide inflation left out of his analysis is the reversal of anti-fossil-fuel measures necessitated by the Ukraine war, the environmental effects of which are not reflected in GDP as currently computed. Although Rogoff discusses the dramatic shortening of the average duration of US debt (through the buying in of long-term notes in quantitative easing), he does not address the inflationary effect of the expense of refinancing the debt with increasing interest rates.
Finally, Rogoff concentrates too narrowly on GDP, which he admits is a flawed measure of whatever an economy is. Economies still move on secular trends such as the growth of manufacturing in Asia and the development of additional energy supplies, not on the past few years of fiscal policy, the focus of Rogoff’s review.
Michele Pridmore-Brown (June 24) paints a terrifying picture of the future if it’s up to the likes of Warwick, Kurzweil and de Gray. As with many past projects of ultimate human mastery over nature, there is no doubt that cyborg immortality is a fantasy, but the damage it can do along the way is not. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to know what it would be like to be such a being, they need look no further than Tolkien’s millennia-old Ringwraiths, with their flesh not living, but merely undead. The longer they exist, the more they both fear death and long for it. Tolkien warned of “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity”. Who is really the fantasist: Tolkien or the transhumanists?
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