Sunday, 24 June 2007

The Black Box of King Canute's Bones

I always felt that King Canute had a bad press. Canute or Cnut as he is known to trendy modernists, (the latter name is now also gaining currency as a fashion epithet to adorn teeshirts in the manner of 'fcuk') was of courses the crazy king who set his throne by the sea and commanded the waves to stop.

Every school boy used to know the story. Along with Alfred's burning of the cakes it was a staple of school history lessons. These days it is more likely that every school boy does not know the story, since if it doesn't support the modern fashions of ecology, racism, sexism or political correctness then it won't fit into the government sponsored national curriculum.

Danish-born King Canute Sweinson ruled England from 1016 to 1035 and has always been assigned to those annals of history that are in the margins. However there is no doubt that he lived as his bones are in a big black box with his name on it, sitting high up on a shelf in Winchester Cathedral visible by anyone who cranes his neck over towards the nave.

But back to the story of the disobedient waves. It is here that we find that King Canute is one of history's misunderstood men. There are usually two versions of Canute's battle with the sea, none of them right. The first version which is usually reserved for the junior school is that of the foolish king who thought his power was absolute. He sets up his throne on the shore to proclaim his sovereignty over the wind and the waves. "Go back," he tells the sea, "I forbid you to come any further." Alas the foolish old king ends up with water in his socks and egg on his face. Let that be a lesson to you children, we say. Even kings can't control the weather. Moral of the story: Don't be a foolish person like silly old king Canute.

The second version redeems the reputation of the king a little bit. In take two, Canute is responding to the foolishness of his courtiers and he is determined to show them a lesson. All day they have been engaged in the activity they think will get them in the kings favour - flattery. "
You are the greatest man that ever lived," one would say. "Great Canute, you are the monarch of all, nothing in this world would dare to disobey you. Even the wind and the waves listen to you." Canute, determined to teach the flatters a lesson in humility sets up his seaside throne in full knowledge of the wetting to come. "There you are," says Canute, "don't come to me with your false flattery." Moral of the story: Don't be a foolish person like King Canute's courtiers.

However as we learn from all good newspaper journalism, real history is a little different and you can usually pick up the truth if you are prepared to go back to the original sources. The earliest surviving version of the story is from Henry of Huntingdon in his Historia Anglorum (History of England), which was written down sometime in the 1120s. Henry has quite a different take on the foolish king story. He says nothing about foolish courtiers or foolish kings.
At the very summit of his power, he ordered his throne to be set on the seaside when the tide was rising. He addressed the mounting waters, "You are under my sway as is the land on which my throne is set and there has never been anyone who has resisted my rule without being punished. I therefore command you not to rise on to my land and you are not to dare to wet the clothes or feet of your master." But the sea rose and wetted the feet of the king without showing any respect. The king then leapt up and said: "Let all men know how empty and trivial is the power of kings. None is worthy of the name except God whom heaven, earth and sea all obey under his laws eternal."
Parables are powerful ways of telling truths and Canute was not the daft idiot we take him for. He knew how to tell a story and get his message across. It seems he genuinely believed what he said because Huntingdon tells us that King Canute never again set the golden crown upon his own head, but set it forever above an image of the Lord which is nailed to a cross in honour of God the great king.
Whether you go along with Canute's religious views or not is not the point here. What is the point is that here is a cynic in the true sense of the word. He didn't put much faith in the power of King.

Members of the Diogenes club feel some sympathy towards misunderstood people like Canute, which is why I bring up his story here.
Diogenes himself was another of history's misunderstood men, and he didn't have any faith in the power of kings either. The story goes that Alexander the Great, fresh from his conquest of Corinth, sought out the famous philosopher and asked if there was any favour he might do for him. "Ask of me any anything you like. Whatever is within my power you shall have," declared the great king. Diogenes replied, "Stand out of my light."

There's one other thing I didn't tell you about the Black Box of King Canute's bones. According to a sign on the wall near the black box, we can't be sure that his bones are in the actual box with his name on. There are in fact six black boxes with different kings names on each one, and Canute's is just one of the six. During the time of the Civil War (that's the English Civil War for our American friends) all the bones of the six kings were dug up, mixed up and when they came to put them back, they didn't know whose bones were whose. Apparently you can't easily tell one bone from another after you're dead. So they made six black boxes and just put some bones in each as best they could. Canute might be laid to rest in his own box, but the likelihood is that there is bit of him everywhere.

It is said that when Alexander the Great first came across Diogenes, he found the philosopher rummaging through a pile of old human bones. Alexander asked him what he was doing. Diogenes explained, "I am searching for the bones of your father, King Philip of Macedon, but I cannot distinguish them from the bones of a slave."

Apparently the rule of kings means little in the long run. And I have a sneaking feeling that Alexander had much the same view. He is reported to have said, "Had I not been Alexander, I should have liked to be Diogenes."

As it turned out, both Diogenes and Alexander died on the same day in 323 B.C. Alexander was 33 and Diogenes was 90, but whether you could tell their bones apart is doubtful.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Blogging On

Well, we were sitting around at the Diogenes Club again last night, as we do on infrequent Friday evenings, and the subject of blogging came up. I might add at this point that I am a blogging virgin, while two of my fellow club members are blogging experts with plenty of advice to offer. It was decided that I too, must have a blog.

But what to blog about, though? Tim was quite insistent that I must have a niche. It is no use blogging on about the world or politics or the latests deficiencies of the government. There's thousands doing that and it'll be stale in a couple of weeks. You need to have something that lasts, something your grandchildren will want to read about in a hundred years time - or it's useless. Well I am by no means convinced that there will be 'a hundred years time' to write for, but that's besides the point. And I understood the point well. Tim is interested in the eternal verities: innocence, purity - but nothing too dangerous. "You're passing on the baton to the next generation, you're not aiming for the mass market, you are trying to create a niche, and in your case you create your niche by what you can hand on to your grandchildren in a hundred years time."

It's good advice, but it's no closer to finding me a niche.
Tim is fortunate in that he already has a niche of his own. He is a beachcomber by temperament, and I sneakingly feel would like to be one by profession. He is master of his world (by which I mean Google numero one in his chosen field) and from the domain of his beach hut has command over all he sees. There is a great advantage to being a beach hut man like Tim. Not only does he have a niche, but it's the kind of niche where the whole world can pass by along the shore, and there are plenty of jewels to pick up and polish.

Likewise David. He is another founder member of the Diogenes Club and a veteran blogger with an encyclopedic knowledge of film, literature, local history and a dozen other things. David doesn't just have one niche, he has a number of them. His advice on "finding your niche" is a little on the existential side. "It will just come to you in the middle of the night. You will wake up and it will be there." I'd like to believe it. Like the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail it's a quest to find something that is hidden deep in the psyche - something that is revealed by dreams in the mystic moment. Not that I've believed any of that sort of thing either.

So come on guys - what should I write about? I need some better advice if I am to enter the blogging world.Tim was insistent. "Don't let anyone tell you what to write." It's good advice, but doesn't help one to get started on the thing.

And here's something else, according to Tim's rules of Blogging: "Don't say anything behind people's backs that you wouldn't say to their faces." That's a lesson I discovered a long time ago now and is an essential rule for protecting yourself against all kinds of hypocracy. It's also one of the reasons I admire old Diogenes. Call a spade a spade and damn the consequences. Just tell it like it is. Of course that kind of attitude will get you into trouble and it is a strong man who can carry such a burden. It's likely that no such people exist anymore - and maybe never have existed. It is said that Diogenes used to stroll through the
Agora during the day carrying a torch while the sun was bright in the sky. When asked what he was doing, he answered, "I am looking for an honest man." He reputedly found nothing but rascals and scoundrels, but he made his point well.

But back to the niche. Was David right that it would just come to me in the night? Well it was about 5.30am this morning and, believe it or not, I awoke with it all clear in my mind. Stories from the Diogenes Club. That's a niche setting if anything is - yet the whole of human life is here, as one Sunday newspaper use to subtitle its offerings. It's my very own beach hut from which I can beachcomb the little nuggets along the Diogenes shoreline and maybe polish up a few for those coming after. Here everything comes and goes, the warp and woof, the eternal verities, the good, bad and ugly - and nothing too dangerous.

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