Friday 26 July 2013

Tudor Plots on the Metropolitan Line

One of the ways we live is by not knowing the peculiarities and ironies of the history that unfolded in the places we live, work and walk through. In one sense, this really doesn't matter very much. It's not going on anymore. So, to take one example,  it's very easy to travel past places in London, which were the sites of public executions, displays of dead people's bodies, disembowellings, dismemberings and the like and not have an inkling of it. So easy that it doesn't matter.

Then again, there is a way in which it is important but probably just sounds rather worthy to state it: we are who we are by complex and subtle ways of intermingling the stresses and strains of now with the inherited ideas of the past. What's more, it's not as if 'history' is some kind of uncontested territory. When people tell us about 'the Tudors' or the 'Anglo-Saxons', why should we ever take this is as finished business? Why should we ever take these statements as all-encompassing ways of tidying up an era or a regime? Quite often - I won't say always - these localised events have a way of qualifying and challenging received wisdoms and certainties.

At the point at which I studied history at school, I had an overall sense that history happened 'somewhere else'.  I felt that personally I wasn't 'in' history, nor, it seemed, were my parents, nor indeed was the area I lived in, which was the suburbs of north-west London. To take that last aspect a little further, one of the features of living in the suburbs in the 1950s was to declare that it was a kind of desert in which nothing went on in the now, and very little had ever gone on there in the past. I'm not sure this was deliberate other than that the suburban dream was in part about a nothingness. The images created in order to attract new buyers of houses along the Metropolitan Line in the period just before and just after the First World War  are of people mowing lawns, sitting in deck chairs with nothing other than other houses and gardens in sight. The dream was of a permanent vacuum to which busy, well-off men could return to be waited on by aproned wives.

As I've been reading recently - as I often do - about the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, I come again and again up against the 'Babington Plot' and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. One part of this whole episode that mystifies is me is trying to get an understanding of quite why the small group around Elizabeth had such a firm adherence to an ideology which in realpolitik terms was so high-risk. That's to say they brooked no compromise with Rome and Catholicism - a position which endangered the regime that they ran and which, as a consequence,  led them into running a high-surveillance state, with the accompanying machine of torture, execution and persecution. They could justify this by pointing out that Catholic regimes, the Pope and individual Catholics were constantly trying to assassinate Elizabeth and/or invade and/or put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. All of which was true too.

Anyway, one moment in all this plotting, torture and terror was the plot that led to Mary's execution - the Babington Plot. I can't think how many times I dutifully wrote those two words in my suburban grammar school exercise books and exams as the Tudors were then - and probably still are -  a key way in which 'history' (ie the subject) , nationalism and schooling fuse. I think 'we' are supposed to learn that the reason 'we' are the way 'we' are is because of the Tudors. The Tudors were of course 'glorious' and all sorts of good things 'flourished' under the Tudors. For us to be given this overall sense of well-being about the Tudors, it was necessary to obscure or omit certain things about the dynasty, their regimes, their wars and the kinds of lives lived by the majority of people. To take one example, in order to revel in the benefits of a Protestant state whilst at the same time lauding the benefits of a dynastic and legitimate monarchy, it was necessary to manage an impossible juggling trick. It was impossible because whatever real or imagined benefits then or now there are of living in a Protestant country, they didn't result from some kind of universally recognised legitimacy. Elizabeth was the daughter of a divorcee and so, in one form of the religious code, she was a bastard. In a sense then, Elizabeth was the queen because she (and the regime's apparatus)  was Protestant. The people who thought that all this was wicked, illegitimate and ungodly plotted to alter the status quo by the ways already mentioned: assassination of Elizabeth, invasion, installing someone with a 'true' line to the throne. Thus: the Babington Plot - along with a host of others.

There are good accounts of this plot on the internet and one small part of it involved Babington  trying unsuccessfully to escape the Elizabethan spy, torture and execution machine.  The way he did this was to rush from London to...(I smile to think of it) to the very part of London I lived in, with its long rows of semi-detached houses, privet hedges and Metropolitan Line stations. At the time of the plot there was a place called Uxendon Manor, lived in by the Bellamy family. I haven't yet found the exact site of the manor house but it was somewhere just to the east of what is now the Jubilee Line running between Wembley Park and Kingsbury. I see that nearby there is a school called Uxendon Manor Primary School,  roads called Uxendon Crescent and Uxendon Hill and not all that far off a Babington Rise.

This was an area I knew either from staring out of trains and buses or from visiting friends, swimming pools or going to athletics meets. In the great run of things, this doesn't matter two hoots. It really doesn't. What's odd though is that the very nature of the kind of 'academic' education we got, meant that a genuine connection between the national narrative we were taught and the local lives we were leading was right there under our noses. I wonder how much more vital and alarming this moment in history would have been, had we been given the detail of Bellamy's manor, Babington himself and his pals, the capture, the trial and execution. This was the prelude and pretext for executing Mary Queen of Scots which in turn led to the Armada - an event which we were taught at least three times.

Part of me now is wishing that I could make a film in which Babington and pals in full Elizabethan costume, arrive in modern Wembley Park/Kingsbury, rush round the suburban streets looking for Uxendon Manor. Perhaps they arrive at a big detached house on Uxendon Hill lived in by the holy-minded Bellamy - is he in modern or Tudor clothes? - and all's well for a while. They don't realise they're under surveillance (radar, helicopters, heat sensors etc) until the cops bash the door down, grab them, take them off for routine modern torture, trial and execution...perhaps 'extraordinary rendition' is involved...anyway, you get the drift...