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Shakespeare's Big Birthday

Shakes 4502

If Shakespeare were alive today, he would be celebrating his 450th birthday. This would make him simultaneously the world’s greatest living playwright and its oldest inhabitant. Since he’s not, he will have to be content with recognition as the greatest writer in history. I doubt he would be much bothered about that acclaim, though greatly interested in box office receipts and royalties.

My first memory of the bard dates to celebrations of his 400th anniversary, when I was eight. There must have been all kinds of programmes about him on the radio and television and lessons on the subject at school, but what I remember especially is a set of commemorative stamps. This might seem an odd beginning to a relationship, but I loved pictures as a child, spent hours drawing and painting and had a sense of history, if ignorant of almost everything else.

And these were no ordinary stamps. For one thing, they were larger than usual and for the first time ever, they honoured a commoner. There was controversy about this, since the Post Office had a policy of not depicting famous people other than royalty and the ostensible reason for their issue was to mark the annual Shakespeare Festival at Stratford rather than William’s birthday.

They were also different in style. For while the 2s 6d stamp was a line engraved depiction of Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, the other four were minimalist in tone using a reversed image of the Droeshout portrait on the left to complement a picture of the Queen on the right, with stylised scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and Henry V in between.

It was the Dream stamp that struck me. It might be because at 3d it was the lowest denomination and thus the one most frequently used on letters. Henry V at 1s 6d would have been a comparative rarity. There is, though, probably another more resonant reason, since while Henry was shown at prayer before Agincourt and Romeo and Juliet in balcony mode, the Dream featured Puck doing some sort of outlandish dance and Bottom with an ass’s head. There can be few children not amused by the idea of a character called Bottom, especially one with a donkey’s head on his shoulders. I have always loved the imaginary and when a child, this fantastical creature along with Puck dancing a crazy jig would have exerted enormous appeal. They told me that here was a man who, if nothing else, was not Enid Blyton.

Today the designs perhaps look a little staid, but in 1964 they would have been revolutionary. Not only was Shakespeare the first non-royal to appear on a stamp, but his portrait was the same size as that of the Queen, giving him a kind of equality with her. It seems there were also jokes in Parliament about the proximity of Her Majesty to Shakespeare’s Bottom, confirming once again that the Palace of Westminster has never been noted for the hilarity of its humour.

The set was designed by David Gentleman, who later in the same year persuaded the incoming Postmaster General, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, to remove images of the queen from stamps altogether. Tony Benn, as he later became, enthusiastically took up this suggestion. It seems Elizabeth II was less keen on the idea and the plan was quietly shelved.

You may not be familiar with David Gentleman’s name, but you will almost certainly know his work. Apart from many sets of stamps, he designed the ceramic tiled murals of medieval workers at Charing Cross tube station and refreshed the iconic oak leaf emblem for the National Trust. If you attended the anti-Iraq war rally in February 2003, you would have seen the blood spattered ‘No’ posters he created for the Stop the War Coalition and it was Gentleman who flipped the vowels in Blair’s name to BLIAR, another ubiquitous placard on the march.

More recently he illustrated Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay a pioneering work of oral history, written by his father-in-law, George Ewart Evans, first published in 1956. The main illustrations are pen and ink with watercolour and are detailed and precise yet fluid and unfussy; a wonderful evocation of contemporary rural existence.

The book itself presents a picture of agricultural life in Suffolk in the final days before mechanized farming, when gathering the harvest was the work of a whole community and even neighbouring villages were remote and strange places.

After my family moved from Kent to Essex in 1963, I was brought up on the edge of East Anglia and had glimpses of that old world. From the school bus I would see a smallholder at work with horse and plough and would find stone beer bottles in hedgerows or long discarded tools slowly decaying amid clumps of weed. Once I found a rusting sickle and wondered whether it had been lost, or thrown away by its last owner as mechanical reapers made centuries of hand work redundant.

It was the kind of childhood that was common then but rare today. I spent hours outside making dens, following meandering streams or exploring a disused railway line. Mostly I walked in the woods and fields, sometimes with a brother or friend, but often alone. I don’t recall any purpose to these ramblings and suppose they weren’t accompanied by Wordsworthian nature raptures; it was simply the world into which I had been dropped and I was delighting in its freedom.

Like Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, a book it inspired, Ask The Fellows is not sentimental about the past. That was a brutal world. In my teens I sketched a dilapidated building near home attracted by its romantic dereliction. Some years later, I met the farm worker who had formerly lived there. He told me the place was cold, damp and had only an outside toilet. He was much happier on the modern council estate. It wasn’t picturesque, but it had every convenience and wasn’t a tied cottage. In the 1970s the hovel was renovated and is probably now worth close to a million pounds.

Fifty years isn’t a long time, though long enough for Shakespeare to have written at least thirty nine plays, three long poems and 154 sonnets. Aged fifty, he only had two more to live. So assuming he really was born on April 23, today is not only his 450th birthday, but also the 398th anniversary of his death.

Britain hasn’t changed beyond recognition since 1964, but much has altered. Back then, homosexuality was still a criminal offence, landlords placed notices in windows saying, ‘No blacks. No Irish. No dogs’ and it was only in that year that The Married Women’s Property Act entitled a woman to keep half of any savings she made from the allowance given by her husband (although the Act didn’t apply in Northern Ireland). It could be a pretty horrible place. Yet while it’s easy to deride the controversy surrounding the depiction of a commoner on a postage stamp fifty years ago, at least Shakespeare’s 400th birthday was celebrated.

There is no such special issue this time round. The current set is of Buckingham Palace (complete with monarch’s head) and will be followed by ‘Remarkable Lives’ featuring among others, broadcaster Roy Plomley and football manager Joe Mercer. Shakespeare is not among them. Yet if his big birthday is not worth a commemorative stamp, I don’t know what is. Happy Birthday, William!

PS. Our cat has a big birthday next month when she will be 22. In terms of human life expectancy, this makes her about 450 years old. So far she hasn’t written any plays, long poems, or even a sonnet.

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