2 August 2015

The Malvern Hills and Stratford-upon-Avon

Quintessential England? - Is it really all over now, Baby Blue?

I have my back to the silent TV, but looking up, observe six men and one woman, all in their sixties, all white, sitting at different tables watching signed and subtitled BBC news. The average age may be 65. The radio plays Bob Dylan’s And it’s all over now, Baby Blue. It is breakfast time at the Stratford upon Avon Youth Hostel.

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast…..

Outside, at a wooden garden table, two more women, between them aged perhaps 140, sit smoking and listening to the passing traffic.

I'm in Stratford to scan the heart of England. Briefly. I walk in the forest of Arden, where no Romans walked, and where I pray no bears still roam.... 

The phrases quintessential England, or quintessentially British, (heard on both BBC Radio and TV today) irritate my brain like mosquitoes in the room, but I am sort of looking for "it", though whether I would like 'it' is another matter. The countryside here is very Archers, Borsetshire at its finest. Is that what I dream of?  I don't think so.... As it is, I almost trip over grazing deer,

The farmyards are peppered with rough hairy pigs....

And the fields are ripe with the ears of Ceres....

William Shakespeare used to ramble hereabouts.  Was it then so very different?  By the River Avon in Charlecote Park the young Will, in bad company, is said to have been caught poaching deer.  The current house was not built 'til a few years later, but the story is a good one...

I wrestle with Will later in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre as I experience a version of The Merchant of Venice, set in a nowhere land of cardboard gold and a laboured pendulum.... The merchant in question is probably gay Antonio, fretting for love of Bassanio, who thinks he loves Portia, who dresses up as a man to rescue Antonio from the merciless blood bond of Shylock, who has estranged his daughter Jessica, who has stolen his riches and run off with a Christian. Nothing glisters, I'm afraid, and in comparison with the Las Vegas version I saw here not so long ago, this is as leaden as the predictable casket.  

And I wonder why?

Where are the swans of yesteryear?

The lover who just walked out your door

Has taken all his blankets from the floor

Shakespeare constructed a play about love and hate, loss and gain, chance and a fine thing.... His understanding of commerce was probably no better than his knowledge of Venice; what he wrote about was the consuming power of wealth and the way this eats into relationships and emotions. 

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stategems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.

(Act V Scene i Lines 82–86)

[The night it is] folding under you
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue……

The performance drags on, and my thoughts fly up.... What if this were the basis of a test of Englishness? What if one had to answer multiple choice questions in order to qualify to be quintessentially English?  Such as:  What is it that makes Shylock deserve his fate? Is it (a) his high rates of interest? (b) his pitiless pursuance of his bond? (c) his mistreatment of his daughter? (d) his being a Jew? (e) nothing justifies the lack of mercy he receives?

I wonder which answer the Farage would choose?

In the Swan theatre, next door, another merchant of Venice, Ben Jonson's Volpone, slithers on his avarice. This show pretends more fun than the other, but it's plagued by business, and one quickly tires of digital gadgetry and interwriting, with bizarre combinations of chastity belts and crop circles, the NHS and the Euro.  As one wise critic put it Times change, but human nature doesn’t: good acting is all you need to bring a play to life  [Clare Brennan: The Observer July 12th 2015].

It's a curious connection, but today in The Observer I read a comment by Hanif Kureishi that also strikes a chord:  One of the main reasons I like the Young Vic is that the audience is fantastically diverse, nothing like the Jurassic lot you get at most London opera and theatre productions..... I realise that the Volpone audience, myself included, is almost exclusively middle class, middle-age to ancient, WASPs....

Take what you have gathered from coincidence
The carpet, too, is moving under you

Shakespeare is in my blood, I reckon. Whether it was playing Prince Hal in a seriously cut version of HIV pt 1 (sic), or dying after a line or two in every part I played in Macbeth in a class reading when I was about 13, or being spellbound by Eric Porter as King Lear in 1968, or by Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens at the National in 2012.... Shakespeare courses through the curriculum vitae and (perhaps) shapes us and steers the mind at times of this and times of that (Romeo, Romeo!)

I am alarmed today to read (Catherine Bennett, Comment, The Observer 02.08.15) that Boris Johnson has been commissioned to write a new life of the Bard.  But, when the alarm signals have died of barddom, I realise that no one (except Boris perhaps) should be fearful.  This news ranks with Eric Morecambe's claim to be playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order....

In something of a quandary, wondering where my quintessence will be found, I take a wander in the Malvern Hills, not far from Arden....

The last time I was here it was densely misty, and the path through the bluebells led to a cloudy heaven. I took refuge in a humble cottage....

And asked direction from a gentleman, a little like my grandfather, seated on a garden bench, his pipe cold in his left hand...

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you

I climb the British Camp, and meet Everyman (travelling in the name of Gerontius) - or is this Caractacus? - on his way through Purgatory....

I look down across the fields to Oldcastle Farm, wondering whether Shakespeare met Sir John there?

And along the ridge above Malvern, where in 1962 Ken Russell filmed a young Edward Elgar riding a white horse....

The landscape, manicured but living, under the changeable English weather, reaches back in time.

Constantly evolving, dying and being reborn, the view was perhaps not so different for the Elizabethans, or the Victorians, but it is but the twinkling of an eye.... Where Caractacus once stood, we now sit for tea and pasties by the A 449..... Is this the quintessence I seek?  Styrofoam and waterproofs.....

I retrace my way across the heartlands of England, back across the Avon, through the low counties of Warwickshire and Northampton shire, to examine the skeletal remains of Kirby Hall, once the home of Queen Elizabeth I's chancellor, Christopher Hatton.  

The house was begun in the 1570s, and developed over the next century or so, but then fell into disrepair, and much of it is now roofless.....

It has been used as a location for Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and for A Cock and Bull Story, which was based on Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.....

So, short of staging Richard III or being used for a performance of Pomp and Circumstance Marches 1 - 5, it could hardly have a better pedigree for a symbol of quintessential England.

And I wonder whether I haven't found what I was looking for? The shell of a masterpiece, open to the skies, echoing with spirits of the past. Glorious, vain, empty, it represents what could once be achieved, but what now lacks the political support it hoped for?

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore
Strike another match, go start anew
['Cos] it’s all over now, Baby Blue

Though that penultimate line is not so grim - there is hope.  The stage may be bare, the actors waiting for direction, but someone may yet take up the baton.... Baby Blue may not yet be dead.....

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano, 
A stage where every man must play a part....

Quotations from Shakespeare, and from Bob Dylan:
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue
Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

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