Friday, 29 May 2009
FROM THE MOUTHS OF THE BARDS TO THE PEN OF THE SCRIBE.
There was a lovely juxtaposition on BBC Four last night; it should, so very English was it, have been broadcast on St George's Day, on every Saint George's Day for in a two-programme combination of the British Museum, on the Sutton Hoo helmet and the historian Michael Wood, on the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf, the evening, almost inadvertently, nonchalantly celebrated the art and the craft of England, neither of them native here to the manner born but now weathered-in, intrinsically English, celebrated wherever she is spoken, read or acted-out; there was no Elgar, no Henry the Eighth and praise God, neither the ghastly Simon Schama nor the obnoxious David Starkey, queened and preened throughout, their every line arch and rehearsed, comic book history. Michael Wood is of much greater refinement.
Most of them annihilate culture, the telly twitterati, the grammar school totalitarianistes nouveau, reducing it to just an ingredient in the endless sausagemeat of broadcasting – cogito ergo disseminare, I think, therefore I must be on the telly, arseholes – all of human history and culture merely a vehicle for their smug, emphatic, talking heads.
The tale from the Museum recounted the disovery of the helmet, now gloriously reconstructed, taken from an East Anglian burial mound, part of an enormous treasure trove and donated, quite properly and in an understated, English fashion, to the nation by it's finder, Mrs Pretty. It revealed how, until the find, Anglo-Saxon man was assumed a mead-swigging brutish dullard scratching around in the pigshit and how the dicovery of such exquisite craft stood that assumption on it's head. It was told with effortless scolarship by employees of the Museum and by film and stills from the 'thirties, when the treasure-laden burial ship of, it is presumed, King Raedwald, was discovered in its burial mound. The excavation took place against the commencement of the Nazi War and all, fabulously wrought gold and silver and gems, was, like much of our treasure, consigned to an Underground station for future restoration, once Mr Hitler had been sent packing by our trusty warriors.
Judged against scholars, restorers, custodians of Antiquity, Wark, the snarling harridan and Mark Potato on the BBC are irrelevant mouthy show-offs, trashy; Schama and Starkey crush enthusiasm and curiosity beneath a cavalcade of wordy, name-dropping, punning, put-downs; contrived, over-written, moribund, an hour watching either of these jumped-up irritants produces TV’s desired effect of making the viewer feel lesser, patronised, nobody-ised. The grinning, hairy, Jock hobgoblin, Neil Oliver, whining his way around the Coast or through mediaeval Scotland, like a Kosher Billy Connolly, makes one yearn for an Open University Closed.
Wood, though, blessed with boyish good looks, easy charm, a wondering enthusiasm and an unfaltering, seemingly spontaneous delivery had me up and running, or Googling anyway, reading poetry, planning a trip to Jarrow Monastery to walk in the steps of the Venerable Bede; to Malmesbury, where, Wood surmised, the pagan Anglo-Saxon oral tradition was enscribed and preserved - but, paradoxically, by latin, Christian clerks. I
In a few magic moments filmed with a man expert in ancient swordsmithing, Wood teased out the craft, almost alchemy, the ritual, the myth behind the Warrior’s magic, dragon-slaying sword, created originally by extracting ore from meteorites sent by the Gods, the fabulously sophisticated artisan twisting and beating and twisting together again rods of red-hot iron to produce the killing strength required, the enchanted ripples of it's melding unique to each blade.
Wood’s programme was interspersed with a telling of the epic Beowulf in a repilicated Saxon Hall. Performed by Julian Glover to an audience of period-dressed, wassailing Saxonophiles this demonstration harked back to an information technology predating even writing. In the beginning was the word. In a few simple phrases Wood linked the whole of English literature, story-telling, from Chaucer to High Noon to the oral tradition of the Danes, the Angles, the Saxons; our every literary nuance, the astonishing global impact of English deeply rooted in the myths, not of John Bull but of the Germanic immigrant tribes; it was deftly, lovingly done, it’s purpose to educate, inform and enthral.
Glover's raucous and dramatic performance to an enthusiastic, participating crowd was intercut also by an elegant, spare photography, landscapes almost Oriental in their singularity conjured, somehow, the rush of Time itself in a single, static frame; quietly, seditiously demonstrated the endurance of Earth, Water, Fire and Air, against which we are all, Warrior or empty, discredited politicians, Jock Tribesman, Eton Bully or fearful National Fonter, but performing fleas.
The poem itself, compassionate in its way to both hero and monster, is taught to English undergrads after the Epic of Gilgamesh and before Gawain and the Green Knight and many an Ishmaelite pays it scant, barely requisite attention, yet in Wood's homage it seems pivotal to the Pagan-Christian duality which forged our national culture during what we call the Dark Ages but which, for an hour, Michael Wood made Bright.
See both programmes, if you can, on one of the BBC's many portals to distraction.
There, Mr Verge, as you were saying, no man is an island, no monster either.