March 23rd, 2014


The Barest Outlines Of A Life

This is all we actually know about Pocahontas:

Her name means something like "crazy kid" or "naughty girl". It's only a nickname. Her "real" name was Matoaka.

She was the daughter of Powhatan by one of many "wives". According to the English she was a favourite of his. He sent her on a mission to the settlement at Jamestown when she was 9 or 10. The English thought of her as a princess but she was no more a princess than her father was an emperor. These were words the English used to make sense of an alien system of governance.  Algonquin society was matrilineal but only men got to be rulers.

One of the settlers talks about her turning cartwheels in the compound of the fort. Smith calls her "pitiful", meaning full of pity. We get a picture of her as a lively, tender-hearted child.

The famous story about her saving Smith's life is probably an invention. If you take Smith's word for it his life was saved on three different occasions by three different maidens. Doesn't seem likely, does it? Smith was a bit of a wide-boy by all accounts. Besides, the relationship between the settlers and the natives was basically friendly at this point.

She may have got married to an Algonquin warrior at 15. We just don't know.

In her late teens she was kidnapped and held hostage by the English. By the end of a year she'd cast in her lot with them. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. She was baptized, took the name Rebecca and married a widower called John Rolfe. His letter to the governor asking permission to marry suggests he was smitten with her. What she thought of him is unrecorded.

She and Rolfe had a son- and called him Thomas.

The family were sent to England to drum up support for the Jamestown colony. She was presented at court and met the crooked, dribbling, snuffy little king and didn't realize he was anyone important until afterwards. She also met Smith whom she'd been told was dead. He says she turned her back on him. Later they had a conversation which he reports. Only It doesn't make a great deal of sense.

At court she attended the performance of one of Ben Jonson's masques.

The only authentic portrait of her dates from this period. It shows her dressed as a fashionable English gentlewoman.

She spent time in London and time on her husband's country estate.

On her way home she was taken ill- suddenly-  and died- a few miles down river from her point of embarcation. She is buried at Gravesend. She was 21, 22- something like that.

And everything else is wishful thinking and political point-scoring.

After Empire

Martin Amis has made a TV programme about the English in which i gather (I haven't seen it) he repeats the old chestnut about us "having lost an empire and not yet gained a role." Who first said that? Some mid-century statesman? More to the point, is it still true?

I'm beginning to doubt it. Nobody under fifty remembers imperial Britain. And even I, who am now in my 60s, only witnessed the roar of the shingle as the tide went out. By the time I was a teenager we were already reinventing ourselves: pop music, fashion, TV, movies, theatre, satire- that's how we were going to rule the world from now on.

Also, all through this period, the Empire was coming home. First the West Indians, then the Ugandan Asians, then everybody else- bringing all sorts of interesting cultural stuff with them. A substantial proportion of the population now consists of the grandchildren of people who weren't imperial rulers but imperial subjects. That's got to change things about a bit, don't you think?

I look at England today and I see a country that strikes me as quite lively in its own way. As upbeat as any country ever is.  We're still pretty good at all the things we set out to be good at in the 60s. And we're now pretty good at food too- which no-one can ever have expected. And computing which had hardly been invented back then. And top-end science. Oh, and banking which perhaps we should shut up about. Boris Johnson called London "the capital of the world" the other day- and it didn't seem like a wholly ridiculous claim. A nation in decline? Only if you measure greatness in terms of gun boats and boots on parade grounds. A people yearning for a time when half the globe was pink? I'm not feeling it. I don't believe I've felt it for years.

In Brief

Dot rang this evening and kept well away from anything controversial. It would be nice to think a lesson has been learned.

The bedroom door has stopped squeaking.

It's been a sunny day, with rainy intervals and about ten seconds worth of hail.

As the sun went down I watched the Eastern sky change from cream to yellow to pink to orange to rose.

I'm having pizza for tea. It's a ham and pineapple pizza only I've picked off all the ham.