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On Living in an Old Country

Britain is an old country. History is everywhere. When I look up from my computer, I see straight across the Ceiriog Valley to a wooded hillside surmounted by Chirk Castle, which dates from 1295. A couple of hundred yards up the road, two stone carved Celtic heads dating back two thousand years were found near an old well. In Oswestry, our nearest town, there is a beautiful Iron Age Hill Fort, a school that dates back to 1407 (the second oldest in the country, after Winchester), and the remains of a Norman Castle built in 1086 and destroyed by Roundheads in 1644.

All countries are old, of course, and most have been peopled for tens of thousands of years – though many native cultures lived lightly on the earth and left few traces. We have lived more heavily and left many marks. We are encumbered with ancient buildings, antique institutions and mouldering traditions, more than a few of which were invented by the Victorians and are deeply bogus.

Shakespeare is now part of the national myth. In a 2002 BBC poll to find our 100 Greatest Britons, he came in fifth (behind Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Diana Princess of Wales and Charles Darwin), two places ahead of Elizabeth I and three before John Lennon.

Shakespeare is part of our national myth, but he also did much to embed or create it. Henry V, for example, is based on largely accurate historical sources but manages to make fun of the French (always good sport), foster Henry’s reputation as a war hero (when today he might be indicted for war crimes), helped define our national self-image as backs-to-the-wall fighters (it was written only a few years after Drake had defeated the Armada, another great victory against seemingly impossible odds) and offers first hints of Britain as a united kingdom (perhaps anticipating James I’s likely accession – unifying the country was amongst his great ambitions).

The latter aspect is of interest, since in Act 3 Scene 2 Shakespeare introduces Captains Gower (English), Macmorris (Irish – and, incidentally, the only character from Ireland to feature in any of Shakespeare’s plays), Jamy (Scottish) in addition to Fluellen from Wales. Their part is small and only Fluellen features much in the play, but their appearance is significant. Shakespeare must have wished to suggest a sense of a Britain united against a common enemy – a theme obviously picked up in Lawrence Olivier’s film version of 1944.

There are also echoes of this scene in AG MacDonell’s novel England Their England (1933). Its opening chapter is set in Flanders (not greatly far from Agincourt, itself near the Somme) in 1917. It is a wet October (the same month Agincourt was fought, also wet) and two officers are discussing the English, Cameron from Scotland and Davies from Wales. The tone is light and amusing (echoing the comic elements of Henry V) and though the narrator explicitly states Shakespeare will not be referenced, his presence is evident. He is inescapably tied to our sense of nationhood.

For generations Shakespeare’s History plays helped define our sense of the past – even when they bore little relation to fact. His depiction of Richard III as a hunchback with withered arm and murderer of nephews has become part of the national story – despite the play being a propaganda piece to bolster Tudor claims to the throne (though Richard probably did order the killing of the Princes in the Tower; morally deformed, he was physically well-shaped).

Shakespeare found numerous ways to flatter monarchs. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he alluded to the famously chaste Elizabeth I as ‘a fair vestal throned by the west’ and as ‘imperial vot’ress’ – thus helping consolidate her reputation as the ‘Virgin Queen’. He was equally skilled when it came to flattering the groundlings, reflecting back to them their image of themselves as drunken, lecherous, witty, prone to violence and contemptuous of all things foreign.

Shakespeare didn’t create these archetypes, but in giving them dramatic life he gave them a certain validation. You will still find Bardolph, Nym and Pistol in almost any pub, in any number of soap operas and on tour in Poland and Ukraine this month, supporting the England football team. Everything changes yet everything stays the same.

This sense of historical continuity was vividly evident with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee at the beginning of June. Remember that? Already it seems distant. The 1,000 boat flotilla that sailed down the Thames on Sunday 3rd was a conscious echo of Canaletto’s painting of The River Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, painted in 1746, and other similar galas in the 17th Century, its symbolism inescapable.

The Thames is the reason London became what it is. In Shakespeare’s day the river was considerably wider than today (the Victorians built its modern embankments) with only one bridge, London Bridge, with its many piers and jumble of shops and houses and the heads of traitors impaled on spikes at its gates. In Tudor times, roads became muddy and impassable in winter, so travel by water was the obvious alternative; when Elizabeth I journeyed from Whitehall to her birthplace at Greenwich Palace, she did so by boat.

Layer is built upon layer, as the Roman quays were replaced by Tudor shipyards. It was from the Elizabethan docks at Rotherhithe that many of the Pilgrim Fathers had embarked in 1620, before sailing on to Southampton and from there to the New World and it was to Rotherhithe that the Trafalgar battleship, Temeraire, was taken to be broken up in 1839. From faraway exotic lands tea, spices, sugar, cloth and porcelain poured into London on the Thames and it was from Mill Bank that convicts were transported to Australia. When Sir Winston Churchill’s coffin was carried down the river in 1965, the dockyard cranes dipped towards the water in respect, and when the Queen opened the newly finished Globe in 1997, she travelled to the ceremony by boat.

Layer is built upon layer. Organizers of the flotilla must have been aware of historical resonances. The Queen’s barge was named the ‘Spirit of Chartwell’ (Chartwell being Churchill’s country home in Kent) its prow adorned with gilt covered figurehead of Old Father Thames. Havengore, the ship that carried Churchill’s coffin was in the flotilla, along with a maori war canoe, a gondola (a nod to Canaletto), 50 Dunkirk ‘little ships’(Dunkirk high on the sacred war litany) and Belem, a merchant vessel launched in 1896 and used to transport sugar from the West Indies and coffee and cocoa from Brazil.

The only boat purpose built for the occasion was ‘Gloriana’ (remembering Elizabeth I), smothered in £4000 worth of gold leaf. Costing £1m altogether, it was rowed by eighteen royal oarsmen and must in part have been inspired by Cleopatra’s barge,

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold,
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them, the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

Reality is never quite as gorgeous. Although bands played ‘God Save the Queen’ and other loyal tunes from neighbouring boats, there were no flutes to help the rowers keep their stroke and nothing burned on the water – it was a chill and wet day. Tradition must be maintained and almost any outdoor occasion has to be marred by torrents of rain.

Rain affected the Children’s Diamond Jubilee Party in Bronygarth as well. Everything changes and everything remains the same. The local celebrations had echoes of previous centuries.Writing of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, Flora Thompson in Lark Rise to Candleford observed,

The Queen, it appeared, had reigned fifty years. She had been a good queen, a wonderful queen, she was going to celebrate her Jubilee, and, still more exciting, they were going to celebrate it, too, for there was going to be a big ‘do’ in which three villages would join for tea and sports and dancing and fireworks in the park of a local magnate… ‘Fancy her reigning fifty years, the old dear, her!’ they said, and bought paper banners inscribed ‘Fifty Years, Mother, Wife, and Queen’ to put inside their window panes.

Many local houses remain hung with flags and bunting and a few have posted pictures of Elizabeth II in the windows. Rain ruled out the running races and outdoor games that had been organized, but the fancy dress was unaffected and children dressed up as kings and queens, princesses, guardsmen and knights – much as they have before. Remembering back to the Peace Day celebration of his childhood in 1919, Laurie Lee recollected in Cider With Rosie,

Apart from the Squire’s contribution Marjorie had been busy for weeks stitching up glories for ourselves and the neighbours… I was John Bull… I remember the girls stuffing me into my clothes with many odd squeals and giggles… I wore a top-hat and choker, a union-jack waistcoat, a frock-coat and pillow case britches.

Everything changes and everything stays the same. Our neighbourhood squires have long gone, to be replaced by a bouncy castle – but even that had to be abandoned because of the adverse weather. Instead we made do with tea and beer and cake and handed out commemorative mugs to the children and generally made the best of things.

The widespread feeling seems to be the Queen has done a good job. Republican sentiments have been muted, though online a few weeks ago I saw a picture of her opening Parliament in all her regalia with a caption: ‘Old woman in £1m hat delivers speech on austerity’ along with some other amusing if treasonable pictures.

Most republicans seem to be waiting for the Queen to pass away before questioning the monarchy. She is personally popular, but as towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, there are questions about the succession. Some people think Elizabeth II will outlive Charles while others insist the crown should pass direct to William. I suspect the Royal Family will survive, if only because no-one could stand the thought of President Tony Blair.

In part it may also survive because the British Establishment is adept at renewing itself. It assimilates and neutralises troublemakers; at the marriage of William and Catherine, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ was sung. The mad old nudist dissenter and visionary would have been aghast at the appropriation of his poem by royalty, the Women’s Institute and English cricket supporters.

Royalty is also good at inventing new traditions; at the Golden Jubilee concert Brian May played the national anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace. This year Madness performed ‘Our House’. From now to eternity every jubilee will feature an aging pop star on the roof, while the concert ended when the queen lit a six metre high beacon (harking back to the Armada beacons of 1588 and all those since). Everything changes and everything remains the same.

Except of course they don’t. Many millions of years ago Bronygarth was on the equator and thousands of feet underwater. The limestone on which ash trees now flourish was laid down in warm seas. I understand we are still moving in a north-westerly direction and that in several more millions of years we will have reached the Arctic regions. Even then, I suspect there will be a Windsor descendant on the throne, Cliff Richard will still hobble about on stage to celebrate whatever anniversary it happens to be and it will certainly be raining. Hurrah!


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