Alan Moore – Writer; Shaman; Guardian of History

This week, all kinds of hell were raised when Northampton Borough Council tried to auction off an Egyptian statuette that had been donated to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, and a boycott began against the new Hercules movie. In both cases, Alan Moore was a vocal figure; denouncing the shadowy figure of The Man, and calling Him out. But who the hell is Alan Moore, and why should we care?

This is Alan Moore. He’s speaking at the UK Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2009, but I like to think he’s rolling his lucky D20 in 1980.
Published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence, courtesy of Matt Biddulph

In the context of the news stories, it is important to note that Moore is one of Northampton’s most famous sons. He is known for his work as a comic book/graphic novel writer. ‘V for Vendetta’? That was his idea. ‘Watchmen’ too. Also ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, and so on. FYI, he really hates the film adaptations of his work, and refuses to watch some of them. He’s also a wizard, and has written books on the subject. He’s also a pagan, and an anarchist, and lived with two wives for a bit, but none of this is important. What is important is that he only really surfaces when he is riled. Personally, I wouldn’t get him riled if I was you. He knows more about Cthulu than you do. Right now, he is riled. Let’s have a look at what has got him into this state.

Selling off the treasures

I’ll be honest, I can’t completely see what all the fuss is about here. The Northampton Museum and Art Gallery is trying to raise money to build a new wing, and in order to do so, it is auctioning off a single part of its collection. The item in question is a statuette of Sekhemka, a royal inspector of scribes during the fifth dynasty. It was given to the museum as a private donation, so they do own it. But there are museums that simply cannot afford to store all of the artefacts they receive, much less display them. Alan Moore’s objection seems to be based on the fact that he has donated some of his own possessions to the museum, and that he doesn’t like the idea that they could just be flogged off by the council with little-to-no notice.

Maybe it’s a fair point; if you give someone a present, there is an expectation that they won’t re-gift it. If an artefact is donated to a museum, there is an assumption that they won’t just flog it off to raise more money. But Moore has displayed this kind of naivety before. When he sold off the film rights for some of his graphic novels, he claims that he had no expectation that they would actually be turned into movies. So maybe Moore should have been a bit wiser to the ugly realities of the world. His graphic novels have no problem depicting the darker side of life, but it seems to be something he doesn’t expect IRL.

But he’s not the only one who’s got beef here. Arts Council England has also piped up. The Arts Council has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Museum over the last couple of years. I guess if I’d given someone that much I would be pretty pissed that they had flogged one thing and raised over ten times that amount. But it also turns out that this contravenes some of their stricter ethical guidelines to do with preserving the past for future generations. So the Arts Council are now looking at retracting the museum’s accreditation, which would mean that it would receive fewer grants in future and have to sell more stuff; spiral of destruction etc. etc.

But the sale is also now being challenged by the Antiquities Ministry of Egypt. TBH, if this challenge is anything like any of the related cases, where countries try to reclaim ancient objects that were removed centuries ago, then I don’t hold out a lot of hope. If Sekhemka wants to go home, he’s going to have to hope for an Egyptian-sympathetic bidder to beat the odds. However, all this attention won’t be doing the museum any good. The loss of accreditation could be devastating, and altruistic rivals with positive uses for Arts Council grants will gladly oust the Northampton Museum from the queue. The dread lord works in mysterious ways.

Boycotting Hercules

Confusingly, there are three Hercules films coming out this year. The Legend of Hercules has already come out, and Hercules Reborn will be out in Hungary later this year. Neither stars anyone I’ve ever heard of, and both look like a poor man’s rehash of all the more memorable swords-and-sandals blockbusters of the century. This seems to happen a lot in Hollywood but, ultimately, they aren’t important. The one we’re talking about is just Hercules, but it’s an adaptation of the comic book ‘Hercules: The Thracian Wars’, which was written by Steve Moore, who is a friend, but not a relation, of Alan Moore. He was also one of the founders of the Fortean Times, so he was a pretty cool bloke.

If you want all the salacious dirt, check out the Bleeding Cool interview with Alan, but to cut a long story short, Steve got screwed over by the industry, and didn’t get a penny from the movie. He wasn’t happy about that, but accepted that the screwing-over was legally sound, and simply asked to have his name removed from the film. Except he had a terminal illness and has since passed away. However, when the obituaries started pouring in, the film’s marketing people took notice, and started trying to use it to drum up attention for the film. Real classy, guys. Oh, and then they claimed that it was the film that was paying for his medical care during the last few years of his life. Despite the fact that that wasn’t a true fact in any way. And that’s why Alan is trying to raise a boycott of the film.

Steve Moore’s name is used prominently in the poster.

I couldn’t find any of the obituaries that really stretch that last point, and they may have been taken down by now. However, most of the news stories abut Steve do mention the upcoming film and the posters all seem to use Moore’s name. This post particularly seems to sum up the hype. So I can definitely see Alan’s point on this one. I had half considered going to see this movie. It does have some really good actors in it, even if they are only going to be people for The Rock to fight/hate/rescue/watch die etc. But really, I could probably save the inevitable £12 it will cost to get into the film and buy myself three or four very nice pints of beer instead, and that will be just as memorable.

Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

Google and D-Day; is it appropriate to deliberately forget history?

Google was recently ordered by the European Court of Justice to grant members of the public the ‘right to be forgotten’. This will allow individuals to exercise more control about what appears about them (or doesn’t, in this case) in the public domain. Google has expressed disappointment, and I know that many historians will be uneasy with the implication that a company could be legally compelled to remove a piece of information if asked.

The destruction of history has been going on for a long time. One of the craziest figures of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty was Akhenaten, who tried to remove the power of the cult of Amun by worshiping the Aten instead, and making himself the god’s main intermediary. It was all very Henry VIII. So anyway, things eventually went south for Akhenaten, and his rivals managed to hustle in Tutankamun, who may or may not have been Akenaten’s son, as a puppet ruler. They also committed damnatio memoriae by removing his name from a bunch of monuments, and this is one of the main reasons why our knowledge of the guy is so shaky. That said, we do still know who he was.

Akenaten and family, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

So, damnatio memoriae doesn’t exactly work. However, I thought it might be interesting to contrast Akenaten with Hitler. They definitely aren’t a direct comparison. Akhenaten did not, to the best of my knowledge, deliberately round up millions of ‘undesirable’ minorities and murder them. However, he did preside over a period of massive upheaval and was subject to a consensus criticism. The big contrast for this topic is that while Akenaten’s successors thought his ideas were so dangerous that they should be forgotten, the attitude to the Nazis has been that their crimes should never be forgotten, so that they are never repeated. Mein Kampf is available to buy on Amazon.

For me, the attitude towards Hitler and the Nazis is one that respects the power of history. There is an acceptance that the past cannot simply be whitewashed over. Furthermore, by suppressing the transmission of potentially dangerous ideas, you are acting like the very people you have sought to overthrow. That said, this is something of a false comparison, between two people separated by over 3,000 years, and very different circumstances. The whole world was involved in WW2, whereas Akhenaten and his successors were probably removed in a palace coup. It is much harder to whitewash over history when the whole world knows about it.

It was also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings recently, and the memorials surrounding the event reminded me of something that has sat a little bit uneasy with me. ‘Least we forget’ and ‘Never again’ are phrases that are often used in conjunction with the two ‘World Wars’, but there have been many other wars with massive death tolls that are not similarly remembered. As we begin to slip out of living memory of the First World War, is it time to stop commemorating it – at least on such a large scale? It very much depends on our reasons, but if the main reason is something along the lines of ‘to make sure it never happens again’, then we have already failed. This was not ‘the war to end all wars’. I would put money on the probability that your country is currently involved in an ongoing conflict.

With the Google case, the important thing is that individuals can only exercise this right on their own behalf.  The Conservatives can’t duck out of their embarrassment quite so easily. Furthermore, it seems as though there are caveats that the information has to be ‘irrelevant’ or ‘outdated’. That said, this does not seem to be the case with the precedent case, which was brought by a man called Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was annoyed that a search of his name brought up an old story about debts that he owed. Ironically Mr Gonzalez will now be suffering from Streisand Effect in that, by trying to suppress information about himself, he has made himself far more notorious.

Of course, this ruling only applies to the search engines that Mr Gonzales asks to remove links; not to the websites that host the pages themselves, or to other search engines, or to internet archives. The actual teeth of this ruling do not cut particularly deep into the facts of history, but they do set a nasty precedent; one that could lead to individuals censoring the section of the web that relates specifically to them.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them in the comments section, below.

Urgent ethical and legal questions for National Geographic, ClearStory and their Nazi War Diggers

National Geographic’s ‘Nazi War Diggers’ has stirred up a lot of anger today. I have already tweeted archaeologist Annelise Baer’s impassioned condemnation of the show, but here is a series of serious ethical questions that many feel must be answered for National Geographic to maintain any credibility:

Urgent ethical and legal questions for National Geographic, ClearStory and their Nazi War Diggers.

Edit 31/3/2014

National Geographic’s response can be found here.

The Mystery of George Clooney and the Elgin Marbles

This story has been developing through the week, and I thought it was about time we featured it on History Mine.

On Saturday, at a press conference for his new film ‘The Monuments Men’, Clooney was asked by a Greek journalist whether he thought the Elgin Marbles should return to Greece. He agreed that he thought they should. George! What have you done? The dispute over the marbles has been rumbling on for decades, if not centuries. With the official position being that they aren’t about to go anywhere, the argument isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon, so all this does is remind us that there is an argument in the first place.

My initial reaction was something along the lines of ‘Why the hell does George Clooney, an American actor, feel the need to make his opinion on this subject heard?’ But maybe that was a bit unfair of me. After all, here I am expressing an opinion on the subject and I don’t possess anywhere near the antiquarian and diplomatic expertise needed to resolve the issue. Plus he was asked his opinion by a journalist instead of forcing it upon the world.

Plus he was at a press conference for a film which deals with the subject of the destruction and relocation of artworks during the Second World War. It’s not an exact analogy, but the reason the marbles were in the UK in the first place is because the British Ambassador to Greece two centuries ago, Elgin, ‘rescued’ them from the Ottoman Empire. Clooney spent several weeks portraying a guy who did something similar. So maybe he does have an insight into this subject that is worth hearing.

Anyone who has a passionate argument in this debate tends to be sitting on the ‘send them back to Greece’ side of the fence. This is mainly because, as adults, it’s hard to really get behind a counter-argument that seems to amount to ‘Shan’t!’

Yes I appreciate that there are all sorts of patronising arguments about whether the Greeks are ready to have them back. Frankly I couldn’t care less about the rocks. It’s not like someone is living on them (which is more than can be said for the time Sean Penn said Britain should give the Falklands ‘back’ to Argentina). Even if this isn’t the destruction of their culture on the same scale that the Jews faced during the holocaust, I can see why it gets them riled.

The real reason behind the ‘keep them’ argument actually seems to be very similar to the one relating to Britain’s overseas territories. If we give one back it will set an ugly precedent. We give the Marbles back and suddenly the British Museum will be half empty, because most of the stuff inside it isn’t actually British at all. But if we’re talking about giving things back to people whose ancestors owned it a couple of hundred years ago, why not start with the US, and the Native Americans?

Staring down the beast

Earlier today I read an article where Leonardo DiCaprio claimed that his latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is “like a modern-day Caligula”. I have neither seen the film, nor met the two-thousand-and-two-year-old Roman emperor, so perhaps I’m not the best qualified person to examine this comparison. But if no-one else is going to do it, I’d like to have a crack, because there’s more to be gained from this than meets the eye.

First though, it’s worth having a think at the millions of different ways history interacts with the modern world – because it does, a lot. Films, music, books, television shows, games, websites; it is everywhere. The example above might seem like a one-off, but believe me it isn’t. I had the idea for this blog yesterday, and since then I have seen at come across at least half a dozen other examples that would have been equally decent ways to kick off this discussion. This was the week that Michael Gove picked a fight with Baldrick and when the BBC aired a programme about Britain’s national debut in full-contact battle re-enactment.

Maybe it’s to be expected. After all ‘history’ is a very loose, amorphous term for something which has been going on for a *long* time. I’m certainly not about to try and pin it down and duct-tape a definition to it. That kind of behaviour is counter-productive and way more effort than it’s worth. When viewed in comparison, ‘modern culture’ seems to be all hype. Bitcoin  might seem exciting now, but you have to remember that before that, the most exciting innovation on our horizon was just a mobile phone welded to a pair of glasses (which *still* hasn’t had a market debut yet).

And yet, ‘modern culture’ is happening to all of us, right now. Each of us keeps bumping into history in our daily lives, and we drag it into others’ as well. Part of the inspiration for this blog was from a tweet by an industry professional lamenting the fact that pages about Skyrim and beer had a higher PageRank for the term ‘standing stones’ than archaeological sites. Mark my words when I say this is No Bad Thing.

As for Leo; he’s right, but he’s wrong. Caligula was groomed for a high rank from an early age by his great uncle, and his entire family was killed off amid political intrigue that led to him being the natural successor to a throne he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed. By contrast, Jordan Belfort, the central character of The Wolf of Wall Street was born a relative nobody, chose his own path, and is still with us today. But, yes. Both men were young and had more power than they knew what to do with. DiCaprio used the word “like”, so we can’t get too critical.

The thing that I really want to draw attention to is the fact that a top-flight professional actor (an American who is constantly surrounded by fans and journalists and film types) felt that the best comparison he could make for a story that he helped tell, was with a long-dead dude from another continent. People like to claim that we learn about history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. That is demonstrably not true. Human beings have and will always make mistakes. We are infinitely fallible, and no amount of packing in the history knowledge will fix that. We learn about history because there is so much of it that it would be rude not to.