On Tuesday night BBC4 quizzed Britons, and challenged us to answer which one of the above we were. Were we a penny-pinching, over-controlling, sanctimonious puritan Roundhead nation? Or were we intent on supping deep red wine from crystal glasses whilst foppishly flinging our hair around in a free-living, libertarian, patrician Cavalier state? It was a pretty slim premise for a programme, to be honest. It was rather obvious to repeatedly flash up the faces of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, when the voiceover asked which of us was Roundhead and which Cavalier. I mean, that’s like suggesting one was a moany, puritanical, chippy Roundhead and the other was a Cavalier sex pest of the aristo variety. Madness!
A cavalier. Now, as far as my sensibilities can tell, this is the late Stuart equivalent of Justin Bieber. Early 17th century high class totty would have been falling over their crinolines to just get a touch of those fetching, velvet leggings. Unsure whether this man is pregnant or whether he has a large squirrel stuffed under his waistcoat, to use in the event of being accosted by a violent Roundhead in the local hostelry, he was one of the King’s men. Probably a Duke. With a Dutch name. And a Barbra Streisband, circa “I am A Woman in Love” wig.
A roundhead. Oh dear. His face looks like he’s suffering biliousness or seasickness. Maybe he’s just spotted a group of ladies sitting beside a Christmas tree and illegally watching “Love Actually” and it makes him MAD with RAGE. Obviously, he’s upset as some dastardly Cavalier has painted a vertical stripe in permanent black marker down the length of his parliamentarian visage. Hang on, that’s disgusting! Oh – wait it’s his sword. For a moment there I thought he was about to impose his Puritanism in a most direct and unpleasant manner.
The answer of course, was a conflicting one. Which was I? Halfway through the programme I threw caution to the wind and decided, crazily, to have two custard creams. Did that make me an indulgent Cavalier? However, I did accompany it with a play-it-ever-so-safe low calorie hot chocolate from Options, a decidedly Roundhead choice. Despite my terror and hostility towards state interference of any kind, surely I do not support absolute monarchy or wish to return to a country without social welfare. So am I a Roundhead or not? I like horses. I enjoy the sight of the aristocracy on horseback in historical palaces and stately homes in England, mainly for laughs. I approve sartorially of the 17th century bonkers clothes choices. I like the freedom that choice of what you wear and who you are entails. I cannot be cavalier about this decision. Or can I? Apparently, during the brief and rather nasty interlude of the English Republic in the 1650s, it became illegal to go out on a Sunday and do anything. So intent were the Lord Protector and his killjoy cohorts on creating an island full of people weeping and praying over holy books on the day of rest. that two women were arrested for going out for a walk. Surely my fondness for tap-dancing would have ensured I was killed during the first year. At the end of the programme I was pleased that both the Roundheads and Cavaliers have died out. Or, as the programme asked, had they?
Two years ago, whilst being academically serious, I wrote an essay for an MA about theatrical nudity and dancing in the 1890s. During that research, I discovered the the “improving” elements of the first London County Council, somewhat influenced by strange combination of the National Vigilance Association and pure socialism, tried to stop more or less everyone from having a good time. Theatre was immoral and dangerous. Alcohol was even worse. And sex? Oh, dear, don’t get them onto that. So brisk and intolerant was the apparently progressive moral arm of the LCC that it marched forward in the name of municipal control and banned tableaux vivants, (ladies in all-over flesh body stockings striking poses of classical statues) and other robust enjoyments of the London populace, without realising that the urban, theatrical culture didn’t at all want it. The LCC. Honestly, the MCC could have done a better job of civic policing. It was the first, but it wasn’t the last, time the bastion of municipal control known as the LCC interfered with, passed judgement on, and morally structured aspects of London that they should have kept their noses out of, but the episode above is one of the firmest and strongest examples of Roundhead moral indignation in late-19th century London. This was, of course, nearly 250 years after the dissolution of the Parliamentarians’ Republic. Ever since 1650, it seems the morally-improving elements of British municipal culture have been intent on finding bits of filth and flamboyant freedom, putting them in the bath for a jolly good wash and then sending them, naughtily, off to their rooms and not letting them come back down again until they have really thought about it. The industrialised, bourgeois classes hate being policed in this manner.
Dickens, along with any other two-nation, patrician Tory like him, was essentially a Cavalier. But didn’t his concern for fairness and justice, particularly in the case of juveniles make him a person with Roundhead tendencies, I thought? No, because Dickens was a great sentimentalist. And the Roundheads would have sooner have bashed you on the head with their no-frills metal sticks than tolerate having their heartstrings pulled by the Daddy of all television drama adaptations. As a satirist, does he exclude himself from membership of both camps? Clearly, the 19th century had its own motley crue of Puritans, a great, insane streak of Roundhead parliamentarianism rearing its head up through the evangelical movement and into parsimonious pamphlets and legions of busybody Mrs Pardiggles, whose skewered objectives in saving people’s souls failed to address bodily starvation. Clearly, both the Cavaliers and the Roundheads were absolute rubbish at the basic job of looking after people. The modern age would be aghast, of course, at any political ethic that didn’t account for social welfare of one kind or another. This is something which doesn’t translate into our modern age. But so much of the other aspects of the characters of the Roundheads and Cavaliers do. You can easily tell which people in our popular culture exhibit their personality traits : Jessie J – Cavalier. Masterchef’s John Torode – Roundhead. John Humphries – Roundhead. Katie Price – Cavalier. Johnny Depp – Cavalier. Paul McCartney – Roundhead. Noel Edmonds – Evil Troll, ineligible for either category. Flamboyant, jaunty indulger or revolutionary, moral Puritan seeking a different standard. Which one are you?
Whilst not being a complete nutter, or indeed any supporter of absolute monarchy, I do think the Roundheads were utterly off their trolleys. Their failure to comprehend the English character ensured their downfall ; rope upon rope fell down and the English Republic gloomily hung themselves on it. The only thing the English love dearly is organized sports, drinking, Christmas, more sports and more drinking. And occasionally watching cricket and “The Antiques Roadshow”. As far as I can see those silly Roundheads abolished all of the above, with the exception of “The Antiques Roadshow”. No wonder the English welcomed back that rancid, syphillitic shag bag, Charles II, with open arms from his exile in France. No wonder he went about twirling his lascivious mustachios, still fragant with the odour of French perfume of actresses, and the English just couldn’t get enough of it. Theatre, with it’s thigh-slapping cheekiness, it’s gumption and kick and wink towards religious (or any other) control resurged, abandoning its restraint and roaring forward in audacity to the Restoration. Suck on that, Cromwell. His mode of living wasn’t going to last. After all, this is a nation that enjoys eating curry whilst shouting and then urinating in public. The English, with delicious superiority, refer to the English Republic as the interregnum; literally, “between kings” and therefore wipe away the seriousness of the republic as nothing more than a moment connecting one king to another, a hiccough, a whiteout, an embarrassment – a Puritan interval in the theatre of monarchy.
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