Munich, Arsenal and Frankfurt
Twenty years after Neville Chamberlain
Proclaimed ‘Peace for our time’ at Heston,
On his return from the Munich conference,
The ‘Busby Babes’ played their last ever game
In England, against Arsenal, at Highbury:
The Munich Air Crash would take so many lives and minds,
And leave a city and a nation frozen in grief;
It was a long journey from February to the summer.
But the World Cup followed the end of the season –
Pele amazed the world with his precocity –
Before close season training at Highbury,
With eyes upon the coming fixture list;
When Jack Zipes, an American student,
Would leave Coleridge, Wordsworth, Thelwall et al
Edward the Second
Kings and Queens, Princesses and Princes,
Fairy Stories for children and for grown-ups,
But this is no fairy tale,
This is the story of a reign gone wrong:
King Edward the Second, most foul murdered,
So-say, on our Berkeley Castle doorstep,
Screams, they say, heard for twenty miles,
His cortege stopping at Standish en route
For a regal entombment at Gloucester …
This Gothick tale is not made for the Age of Enlightenment –
Oh, go away, Tom Paine with your Reason:
‘When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are easily poisoned by importance, and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions’ …
Let’s keep the fairy tale going if we can –
Oh, but how much do you loathe and detest
Tales like The Princess and the Pea and their ilk?
And by all The Rights of Man and Woman,
A simple question to ask of pomp and circumstance:
Why do monarchs wear crowns upon their heads?
I suppose head-dresses, wreaths, crowns and the like
Signify ‘otherness’, legitimacy, immortality,
And yet, let’s be honest with ourselves,
People look slightly strange in a crown –
We wear paper hats at Christmas Dinner,
And laugh at ourselves in an echo
Of the World Turned Upside Down,
And the Twelfth Night’s Lord of Misrule,
But we also laugh at ourselves because we look comic:
You look weird in a crown, be it paper
Or heavy with gold and wrought with jewels …
But on to Edward the Second at Gloucester,
And a popular history paperback,
Edward the Second The Unconventional King
(Kathryn Warner) –
The foreword by Ian Mortimer
Offers some interesting observations
About monarchy, but not, perhaps,
In the way that the writer intended,
But what do you make of all of this?
Cirencester seems like a typical
High-Tory Cotswold sort of town,
Men in yellow and red cord trousers –
Profuse pocket kerchiefs, tweed jackets,
Highly polished shiny brown brogue shoes,
Conservative ladies who take luncheon,
Just one silent beggar in a shop doorway,
Just one busking troubadour in the streets
To remind us of medieval days of yore …
But when I sit down by the weathered cross,
Down there by the church in mid-winter,
With a cheese and onion pasty,
And a warming cardboard cup of tea,
I wander through the fourth wall to read
The 1381 Poll Tax and its hated demands:
574 Cirencester subjects over the age of fifteen,
To pay the hated iniquitous tax,
No matter how indigent they might be,
A peasantry taxed to pay for a ruling class war,
Over the sea in France;
I glimpse, too, the Feudal Lord, the Abbott,
Studying his imposingly long list of tenant duties:
Thresh corn, plough fields, scythe hay,
Mow the fields, hedge and ditch;
Tenant’s corn to be ground in the Abbot’s mill,
Pay for the privilege, ditto at market;
If you grind corn on your own mill-stones,
The bailiff will take or break your mill-stones …
The lexicon of popular history,
With its ridge and furrowed semantic fields and stories,
Opens doors of childhood perception,
To fields of knowledge, imagination,
Wonderment and enchantment –
But, I think, especially enchantment.
Take, for example, an Anglo-Saxon tale,
The tale of Alfred the Great and the burnt cakes:
The moral of the tale presented to me in childhood books
Was all about the humility of a king
(A king in a common kitchen, indeed!),
And the curtness of the woman in the kitchen,
When discovering that the stranger –
Preoccupied with Vikings rather than griddles –
Had ruined the cakes.
But could a different moral have been presented to my boyhood self?
Where’s the next meal going to come from?
The woman in the kitchen has so many things to do.
Cooking cakes is, in fact, a difficult and highly skilled task.
Popular histories for grown-ups carry on this approach,
Textually rather than through pictures perhaps,
But the effect is the same.
Take the phrase ‘ordinary people’, for example:
The word ‘ordinary’ is, I think, used almost as a pejorative,
Rather than as a synonym for majority;
And what synonyms do we find for ‘ordinary’?
Ordinary, as in ‘not distinctive’ …
Common, everyday, humdrum, run of the mill …
What have historians enchanted by the study of Romano-British
history ever bequeathed to us?
And why have they been enchanted?
I suppose it could be the Stockholm Syndrome,
The affection felt by the captive for the captor sort of thing,
Or perhaps we should call it the St Albans Syndrome,
Or the Verulamium Syndrome …
But there’s so much more, I know,
(Or is there?)
Deference, perhaps, or ‘Borrowed status’,
As the sociologists put it,
The cult of the classics in grammar schools,
The dominance of the English public school;
The cult of the nineteenth century amateur,
Antiquarian and archaeologist,
Often a country curate;
The simultaneous growth of the British Empire,
Parallels drawn with Pax Romana,
And the civilizing mission
Of ‘The White Man’s Burden’;
The tantalizing nature of the evidence
Of the Romano-British centuries:
Tangible yet numinous;
Chance finds as the country was industrialised,
New roads, new footings, foundations and factories,
Those rural curates on new railway lines,
The Ozymandian nature of it all:
‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’
The M.R. James winter ghost story trope,
The feeling that those twilight Celtic gods
Lie just beyond the veil of imagination.
The way that the history fitted in
With a British jigsaw of stereotypes:
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland,
Circles without Class Ceilings
Why can prehistory be so entrancing?
Why do some people find prehistory so entrancing?
Why do they become so spellbound
When walking by, let’s say, a long barrow?
How do they become so transported in time and space?
What’s it all about?
Is it because a standing stone, a circle,
A tumulus, barrow, or whatever,
Demonstrates the fragility of knowledge,
The equivocal nature of understanding,
In a sense, the ‘negative capability’ of John Keats:
Being conscious, simultaneously,
Of knowing and yet not knowing?
The recognition that sometimes any presumption
Of understanding the meaning of an edifice,
Can only be speculative
(Despite the accumulation of evidence and artefacts,
Despite measurement, mensuration and comparison,
Despite a commitment to the rigours of empiricism),
And a reflection of who we are in the here and now –
Or can Homo sapiens merely develop
A restricted trope of meanings, recognizable
And familiar, across time and space …
So some speculations are bound to be valid …
Or is signification, itself, a trope of modernity?
Nature and Nurture:
How circumscribed are we by time and space?
And how universal are we across the same?
What do these structures reveal and indicate
About what is quintessentially human?
So, prehistoric structures,
In an a priori, apostrophizing, manner,
The manner of an innocent wonderer,
As yet unread on the subject,
I question your meaning:
What were you for?
As the traffic rumbles past on Cotswold roads,
It’s hard to hear the chip of stone on flint,
Or the croak of corvids with their blood-drip beaks,
Or the breaking of the bones of a skeleton,
Or smell the rotting flesh on the capstone,
Or taste the ashes of the dead on the nightfall wind,
Or see the blood red sunset behind the silver river
Or the standing stone’s silhouette,
But try hard on a winter’s afternoon,
And you might just slip down a wormhole of time,
To rituals of death and memory,
And recognize the prehistoric past
For what it is and was:
Not something primitive and alien,
But something shared.