I never met Terry Jones, but I would rather have liked to. The complexities of life brushed me close to his orbit a couple of times – a friend worked with him once, and I know my fellow OffG editor Catte corresponded with him briefly. But I never did.
He was a bit of a hero of mine.
Not for his comedy, or his children’s books, or his films – though I did love them all – but for all the things that came after, and the important lessons I learned from his work.
The other obituaries of the man will likely focus on his entertainment career, and that’s only fair. As a member of Monty Python – the comedy equivalent of The Beatles – he is likely one of the most quoted pop culture figures of the 20th century.
Yes, Python will be well eulogised, and Labyrinth secures his cult status in the hearts of thousands of 80s kids. But there was more to him than that.
To me, as a teenager whose political “awakening” was the wake of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war, Terry Jones was an example of a man who could have just retired to the country if he wanted, but instead chose to take on the establishment and speak truth to power.
That was, and is, very admirable.
I vividly remember two columns of his I read when I was in college – back then he was writing in The Observer (this was when that paper had a little bite to it). Fortunately, I was able to find them in the archives:
His column, I’m losing patience with my neighbours, Mr Bush attacking Bush’s case for bombing Iraq, was an important pricking of the growing media bubble.
His later column, Let Them Eat Bombs, highlighting the suffering of children in Iraq, introduced me to Albright’s infamous “it was worth it” quote.
Another, more recent, article of his – War drums are beating for Iran. But who’s playing them? – combined both his political and historical interests, comparing the push for war with Iran to the wars-for-profit of Medieval Italy:
since those who made money out of the business of war naturally wished to go on making money out of it, warfare had no foreseeable end.”
Through his work merging contemporary politics and historical research, Jones was someone who could teach you to think critically. This was his influence on me, at least. And why he is in my small, personal Pantheon (we all have them).
His book, Who Murdered Chaucer, for example, is a lot more than look at one of the great unsolved medieval mysteries, it’s an exercise in knocking down assumptions, rethinking accepted narratives and questioning mythologies. It tackles the idea that Richard II was a “bad king”, and lays his bad reputation at the feet of his reluctance to wage (profitable) war, and post hoc Lancastrian propaganda.
This rejection of myth was all through his work on history. I would recommend everyone watch his documentary series The Crusades and Barbarians (about the enemies of ancient Rome). Both deconstruct the narratives of Imperialism, with subtle nods to the modern American Empire.
In refusing to partition then from now, Jones was able to illuminate both.
Medieval rulers and ancient empires were no strangers to manipulation and disinformation, he tells us. And, likewise, the motivations of our current rulers are no different from Caesar, Napoleon or the conquistadors.
Greed and conquest aren’t relics confined to museums, nor was propaganda invented in the 20th century.
In the last episode of his Medieval Lives series, Jones says:
History is not necessarily “what happened”, it’s very often what somebody wants us to think happened. So I suppose we shouldn’t believe everything we’re told.
That “history” can mean 10,000 years ago, or just last week. A quote of subtle, nuanced and critical thought. We don’t hear much of that these days.
Terry Jones was an author, a director, a comedian, an actor, a historian and a decent human being. But most importantly he was a free and independent thinker. They are truly quite rare.
He will be missed.