I have been thumbing through some of the stirring stuff inscribed hereabouts, and jolly impressive it is to. In an effort to compete, (portenders ready …you might say), my first thought was to complain that I can never escape Englishness. I kid you not, I was incubating some gor-blimey pretentious metaphor in which Milton’s Satan stopped off to say …
“Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell“, …
This, seriously, was to illustrate the inescapability of one’s identity. Well thankfully you are saved from this nascent horror; I am off on quite another tack.
Here it is then….Years ago I sat in a Library reading the Miller’s Tale, yes I was only eight and already inhabiting the Middle English linguistic world. …….Ok ok, I was at ‘uni’, had no choice, and got a modern translation to save on swotting. Anyway, I got the only bit of Chaucer everyone knows. Absolom was thrusting his hot poker, “amidde the ers”, of Nicholas’ “toute” causing N, understandably enough, to cry, “water!”. The Landlord, you will recall, thinks the great flood has come and hilarity ensues. As I read I, “laughed out loud”.
Think on that for a moment; an idiotically dressed, and coiffed, 20th century student sending a LOL down the centuries to Geoffrey Chaucer. Englishman to Englishman.
You see, dear reader, in our dimly lit Anglo Saxon past, after battle, they feasted and re-told unbelievably tedious sagas about Sea monsters and stuff ….On the next hill, where I would be, they laughed at the whole thing, remarked on who had been the most cowardly, and admitted they would rather copulate with farm yard animals than fight.
I don’t say we should not soar above green vales to heroic strains of Elgar, or tease out any number of threads. Amongst all the full-body-waxing lyrical though, someone should at least try to conjure the merriness of Englishmen, finding the ridiculous often in what they love, and hate, most fervently.
Few, for example, have considered life and death with greater seriousness than John Donne, but in his Valediction Forbidding Mourning, a verse of terse spiritual and emotional strength, he still chucks in a knob gag for good measure ….
…It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home….
Nudge nudge eh, but let’s not over emphasise the bawdy. The exquisitely malicious observation of Jane Austen, the eye for foible of Charles Dickens, the affectionate despair we feel for Pooter, the endless verbal delight of PG Woodhouse, Churchill, Shaw, Cleese, Milligan, Rickie Gervais, where to start, where to end? It is part of us and I`d say an important part.
Why did we English establish Common Law so early, avoid revolution, religious slaughter (mostly), and muddle though in a manner the benighted foreigner can only envy? I suggest it is a sense of proportion, a deep reasonableness rather gentler than stern “Reason”.
To have sense of proportion is to find life and oneself at once serious and absurd. Ask yourself why a prat-fall is so enduringly funny? It’s the sight of man in the attitude of walking, when he is falling. Humour (he pontificated…) is a corrective to stiffness and renders the miserable po-faced preening tick powerless. For one thing our leaders, the constant butt of cruel satire, have been is comparatively decent.
Now this great Nation faces new challenges, threats to Liberty, free speech and our very right to be a people at all. Let us all hope we continue to say the unsayable, and laugh at our own prejudices whilst defending our values. If we do I have little doubt it will “Turn out nice” again.
Paul Newman ‘was’ the author of Newmania before he acquired three children.