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The Rebel Is In The Detail

19 April 10 interview: James Walker
illustrations: Ging Inferior

"Robin Hood is a touchstone for English rebellion – the sense that there is a natural justice that can be fought for"

David Horspool has worked at the Times Literary Supplement for more than fifteen years as History Editor. His recently published second book, The English Rebel, is a timely addition to our featured debate about Robin Hood as it explores the mythical, cultural and historical implications of rebellion and suggests it is more than a purely left wing ideology…

Why did you write the book now?
Well, I’m always a bit suspicious of historical writing that aims first and foremost to be topical, but having said that, I do think the ongoing debate about what constitutes English “identity” feeds into the material for my book. The reason that the book is specifically about English, not British rebels, is that it’s a strand of English history that’s in danger of being marginalized, usually because, in other circumstances, the English were the people being rebelled against.
Is rebellion as possible now as it was centuries ago?
The state with its technological power is much more powerful now. But in centuries gone by, the expectation that you might be able to change things that comes with a democratic system simply wasn’t there. Most people could no more go to war in the fifteenth century than they can now. They didn’t have the money, or the equipment, or the know-how. Look what happened to the peasants in 1381 who did take the very unusual step for their class of rebelling. Their leader was murdered, they were dispersed, and subsequently slaughtered in their hundreds. Kettling protestors at the G20 doesn’t compare. Of course, popular powerlessness might seem to have been demonstrated by the way our governors totally ignored the huge protests against going to war in Iraq, but closer to home, on matter we could enforce our will – MPs’ expenses – popular clout has had impressive results.
How do you explain the rise of the BNP and the EDF marches? Is it plausible that the white working class no longer have a political party representing them? 
Extremists are always with us, alas, and it’s a depressing part of the story of English rebels that many rebellions had a violently xenophobic strain. Simon de Montfort presided over the slaughter of Jews, the Peasants of 1381 executed dozens of Flemings. I’m not sure that mainstream politicians should think of themselves as being the party “of” the white working class, say. Surely white workers and black workers and any other type of citizen should expect the same sort of thing: a fair and open society, with protection for the needy, and a reasonable distribution of prosperity. Tribal politics of any stripe aren’t very appealing.
Rebellion was seen as a dirty word until recent times. What’s changed our attitude?
At its most simple, religion. For most of our history, England was not just a nominally Christian country, but a very Christian one. And as you know, the rebel to end all rebels is the devil. So from the beginning, those who became rebels could be displayed as following Satan. Then, with the advent of Protestantism, another layer of dogma was introduced in this country that specifically linked the national religion with obedience to the Crown. So rebellion was unchristian, and un-English. What has changed is cultural attitudes to questions of obedience. And with a more open society, not every kind of rebellion is seen as fundamental.
What are the classic traits of a rebel?
I suppose the most important trait a rebel seems to have over the years is refusal to give up. More successful rebels also have a good sense of timing, and of theatre. Robin Hood may be a mythical rebel, but he’s also a sort of touchstone for English rebellion – that sense that there is a natural justice that can be fought for, as well as the idea that a popular rebel doesn’t have to be a man of the people (if you go for those versions of Robin’s story that seem him as a dispossessed noble)
Any favourites?
Of more historically “reliable” rebels, one of my favourites is the eighteenth-century rake, John Wilkes, who campaigned for various things we now hold dear under the heading of “Liberty”. I like the fact that he was a bit odd-looking, which he made up for with his powers of persuasion (he used to say it took him twenty minutes to “talk my face away”). And as a parliamentary rebel, he’s a good example to today’s less independent representatives.
Oswald Mosley seems to be a contentious choice of rebel in your book...
I try to emphasize that rebels are not necessarily likeable people. Mosley is one good example of that. Another might be Lord George Gordon who incited Londoners to anti-Catholic rioting in the eighteenth century. Rebels, in my understanding, work outside conventional means to try to effect change. Looking back at some, like the Chartists, we might applaud what they fought for. Others, like Gordon or Mosley, we would condemn. But they are all rebels.
Is there a period when rebels moved from individuals to group?
No, I don’t think so. Although the era of mass communication means that the way rebels are assembled have changed. The seventeenth century and the rise of the printed pamphlet spread political messages, including rebels’, further than before, while in the nineteenth, different forms of organization meant that rebellions could become ever larger and greater spread geographically .
Rage against the Machine got to number one at Christmas as part of the peoples’ rebellion against manufactured groups produced by Simon Cowell’s X Factor. Yet the real winner was Sony who produced both records. I guess you just can’t win?
Not if the rebellion’s success or failure is dictated by the terms on which capitalists win: ie, making money. But getting an interesting record to number one is still a successful act of cultural rebellion. Most of us like living in a capitalist society but we can change the way corporations behave by withdrawing our custom. I didn’t include more cultural rebels as I decided to concentrate on broadly “political” rebellions.
Brian Clough seems to fit your definition of a rebel...
Clough would, I think, have identified with some of the rebels in my book, particularly those ones who had the gift of the gab. But he too knew that he had to work within a system, and he had to find the right combination of chairman and club to succeed, as at Forest and (whisper it) at Derby.
So, Robin Hood: Socialist hero or mythical being?
There seems to be evidence that Robin Hood may well be based on a real person. If he was, that man is far more likely to have been a common criminal than a socialist hero. But what’s interesting about the way Robin has been taken to heart is that he appeals to something we all feel about how we would like wrongs to be righted: with passion, but also with style. If Robin was real, he is likely to have had as much to do with Yorkshire as with Nottingham, but again, the story is more important than the history here: Nottingham took Robin as their own, so he is now a Nottingham hero. On that note, I have always wondered why the city didn’t follow the example of Leicester and name their second university after a local rebel. Leicester have Simon de Montfort University. How much smarter would it sound to be an undergraduate at “Robin Hood University” rather than Nottingham Trent? They missed a trick there.
The English Rebel by David Horspool is now available in paperback from Penguin Books

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