In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett allows Queen Elizabeth to discover reading (“it was the corgi’s fault”) which eventually leads to her abdication so that she can devote herself to writing. Well, that didn’t happen. We are celebrating the Queen’s platinum jubilee this weekend after her 70 years of dedicated service to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. But the written word can lead to (or herald) change, which may have been Bennett’s point. Examples include both the Old and New Testaments and, many centuries later, the Qur’an. To effect change, however, the written word needs a fertile ground - an environment ready to receive the words - as well as a way of bringing that word to the masses.
In the late 15th century, a priest called Heinrich Kramer was urged by the Vatican to write a book about witches. The (religious and political) establishment of the time was keen to divert the attention of the masses away from itself. The preference of the establishment was to focus on its own privilege, wealth, and power - this could always be improved by lying and being brutal to everyone else. People were kept uneducated which allowed false information to be accepted as truth.
And there was a means to enable Kramer’s false words to ricochet around the known world - the printing press had just been invented. Kramer’s book Malleus Maleficarum ‘described’ witches’ secret night-time rituals that allegedly included witches eating children, their sex with the devil, and the deadly mayhem they caused to the wider community. The torture and execution of witches was described and authorised. For 200 years the book was the second best-seller after the Bible. The church manipulated a craze for controlling, hurting, and killing women at a time when the plague was reducing the nobility's control over the lower classes and feudalism was breaking up.
Here we are in the 21st century with great change happening as the information revolution explodes. People are again divided into the very rich, powerful, and privileged (the establishment) and everyone else (including those who feel stripped of agency, who are dissatisfied with people in power). And we have another global pandemic.
In their book The Sovereign Individual published in 1997, William Rees-Mogg and James Davidson prophesised the birth of a new stage of Western civilisation off the back of the information society.
Having been around the establishment for most of my working life, I can almost understand how this type of backlash might have come about (albeit in a bizarrely twisted form). The officials in central and local governments, some politicians, and even the people who lead NGOs, are generally averse to change and are often unresponsive to need. They benefit from the status quo just the way it is.
Establishments also feel more in control when they can keep uppity women in their perceived place by either ignoring them or making up rubbish about them - hence the total rubbish about Mrs Clinton designed to discredit her and take away her power. The establishment players can then feel big even if they are operating in very small ponds. Who wouldn’t want to keep hold of that once they’ve found it?
I recently tried to read Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog (made into an award-winning film which is readily available to the masses) but gave it up as a bad job even though I, like the Queen, believe that we should finish a book once we start it if we can. To me, this novel describes people behaving badly, especially towards women, and hanging onto a sense of power by any horrid means possible. Its hard to stomach.