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Bill and George? Who?

Today should, by rights, be a good day for me to write an article.

Maybe words to titillate the senses; maybe to educate, entertain or inform? Or maybe an opportunity for me to be self-indulgent.

Why does today augur such good omens?

Well, for a start, it just happens to be the birthday of William Shakespeare, or so the historians think. The actual date of the bard’s birth is not recorded or documented, but his baptism was, and he was christened on 26th April 1564. It was normal to have baptisms three days after the birth, so I guess its a reasonable assumption.

Weirdly, William Shakespeare died on the 23rd April 1616. This is documented, so either way you look at it, this should be a good day for a struggling penman to bash out a few words.

Now, flashback to the early 1970s.

Confounding my father’s prediction that I would be an imbecile for the rest of my life, I did pass my eleven-plus exam, and made the cut to get into Grammar School.

A typical 11+ exam from 1968… Could a ten year old do these now?

English lessons with Mr Dobbins were dreary and dull, but at least he taught me the fundamentals of grammar, and spelling.

Even at that age, I was a voracious reader. My bedroom bookshelves housed the complete works of Issac Asimov (all read, I add), but I recall that I also dabbled with H G Wells, Jules Verne, E E “Doc” Smith and Arthur C Clarke.

Just one of the reasons why I love Science Fiction

However, nothing prepared me for the sheer, unadulterated hell of classes in English Literature.

Miss Briggs, my English Mistress, was a true hippie, complete with an Alice headband, long dresses and mauve tights. I think she knitted her own shoes.

But she was a nice soul, generous with her praise, and gentle with her frustrations at dealing with a totally disengaged class.

The english literature syllabus back then required that students were able to understand the context of the books studied, and could explain the use of metaphores, and allegories.

This meant that the works of the great writers were dismantled, sentence by sentence, line by line, chapter by chapter.

And then the probing questions and tests to establish our understanding…

“Mark, what did Shakespeare mean by his obscure use of the word and in this sentence.

After two years of dissecting Macbeth and Richard the Second, I was put off Shakespeare’s works completely,. So whilst I could (and still can) recite several speeches and soliluquies, I ended up leaving school with a deep seated loathing for Shakespeare, and a not much better opinion of the mediaeval writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Maybe this was a reaction against learning The Millers Tale and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in Middle English.

What the hell were our educators thinking???? My old school friends, with whom I still meet regularly, all left school with the same feelings.

It was many years before I came into contact with the Bard again; I was in my mid twenties, and had joined my local drama group. After gaining confidence and appearing on stage in a lot of very minor bit parts, I was finally being offered more principle or leading roles.

One winter evening, I went to a meeting of the players, to discover that the next play we were producing would be A Midsummer Night Dream.

Would you like to see my Bottom?

My heart sank. Not Shakespeare…

Please…

However, I soon discovered that when read and performed as the great man intended it to be, it was truly joyous, and is a great piece of literature.

I have never managed to read any of his works as a book. I have watched and genuinely enjoyed some excellent performances of his work, so the cultural damage inflicted upon me as a kid have been repaired, but it has taken over four decades!

If they had required that I study Science Fiction, I would have probably passed my English Lit exam with an A+ rather than a C-.

The other thing of note about today’s date, is that it is Saint George’s Day.

Saint George on his charger…

For those that aren’t familiar with Saint George, let me briefly explain. St. George is the patron Saint of England. Not Britain. England.

The true history of St. George is lost in the mists of time, but he did exist. It appears from several accounts that he was a serving officer in the Roman army around 300AD. Legend has it that he killed a dragon that was slaughtering the residents of a local town. He was offered a monetary reward from the King, but refused to accept it, and donated it to the poor of the town.

This made him worthy of Sainthood.

There are accounts from 12th Century Genovese books that refer to Saint George’s colours being a red cross on a white background.

Other accounts tell of him fighting alongside the English Knights Templar during the crusades of the 12th Century.

In 1348 King Edward III of England incorporated the Cross of St. George into the English Royal Standard, and by the end of the 14th Century, St George was adopted as the Patron Saint of England, and the Protector of the Royal Family.

The English Royal Standard, circa 1348

It has been this way for centuries.

Now, the English seem to have a reputation as a self effacing race. We don’t normally go in for self agrandisement, prefering understatement to get by. That and the much publicised “Stiff Upper Lip”.

So, it’s our Patron Saint’s day today. We are in lockdown. So none of our pubs will be open for the discounted English Ale, cheap Cider, roast beef sandwiches and pork pies . There will be no give-away straw hats, or plastic flags. No Public Holiday.

But then, we don’t do that anyway.

Go Well…