Friday, 29 May 2009


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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.


Dick the Prick said...

It certainly was pretty special. As was the poem thingmyjig before on Dover Beach. Man in his place surrounded by sea - surrounded by that which can't be seen and shit.

Kinda bloody remarkable we've made it to 2009 I guess - anything else is a Brucie Bonus maybe.

aea said...

That was a delight to read.

call me ishmael said...

Dear Mr aea

Thank you but the programmes were the true delight, as mr DTP says, special, do, if you haven't, try to see them.

Verge said...

Dear Mr Ish, thanks for that, well said, and I shall look out for repeats.

The thing I liked most about Gawain and GK was the cheerful lowbrow gag at the heart of Gawain's pact with the mystery host - I won't rehearse it here in case there's someone reading this who plans to look into Simon Armitage's new version. It's heartening to realise a writer (& his audience) 600 odd years ago were tickled by the same stuff that chuckles us now. And of course it's hard not to laugh at the Gawain poet's setting his knight's tribulations in the Wirral.

black hole sunset said...

Missed the Sutton Hoo program but had Beowulf set to record since last week when the trailers were running.

Interesting, amongst other gems, that the Ruthwell Cross "... was broken up by zealous Presbyterians ...".

Horrible narrow-minded philistines.

Something in the water perhaps, or just a blighted lineage?

call me ishmael said...

Dear mr black hole sunset

My young friend stanislav has been warning for some years now that we descend into New Presbyteria, the country run by sanctimonious wife-beating, cross-dressing, child molesting sonsofuckingbitches, all of them, like Torture Secretary Straw, sadistic fucking bastards mouthing Christian Socialist platitides to the masses, spending their evenings in dark places doing dark things of a non-consensual nature.

It is a measure of Brown's lack of sophistication that in a largely secular country he trumpets the fact that his old man - and what a piece of work he must have been - spent his weekends browbeating the poor on behalf of the rich, shaming and belittling them at every opportunity and stealing their money to do good work, like sending his Mong son to a special school, as though he wasn't enough of a fuck-up,an emotional discard, a stuttering, snot-eating fucking lunatic, as though fostering religious intolerance across the country and fomenting guilt and shame and anxiety were paternal activities of which Gordon could be particularly proud, at which we would doff our caps in admiration.

They are awful, Presbyterians, mean as dirt, two-faced, Godless heathen fucking bastards, the Kirk and the Lodge places not of worship but of mealymouthed misanthropy, the Highlands and Islands of the United Kingdom the spiritual home of apartheid.

We should Avenge the Rothwell Cross and if we encounter one of thes bastards on the high road punch him, in the name of God, hard in the face. It is the right thing to do.

If you get an opportunity watch the Sutton Hoo programme as well as Beowulf, they ebb and flow, in and out of one another. a canny politician would exploit this early example of beneficial immigration and easily disarm those whose trade is fear. We have no canny politicians, just thieves and slags and ponces and degenerates; enter, stage right, a man with a swastika.

Anonymous said...

Mr Smith,

I balme you, always going on about Starkey & Scharma, I saw the listing for Beowolf and decided to give it a miss, now I can't finf a bloody repeat.

Bloody nihilists.

PSh Job of night editor is still open.

call me ishmael said...

Dear Mr The Editor

They need going on about. Anyway, if you weren't always glued to Hislop and Co and Andrew Jock and Diane Lard and the Whispering Grass, Portillo, you might find time for what intelligent broadcasting there is; I manage and according to some correspondents I can't even up-boot a computer.

This night editor post, does it pay the same sort of money as being features writer, leader writer and arts correspondent?

What is it, Mr Verge, about age and Time which draws one to the old scriptures, the old prayers, the old tales, Gawain and Piers Plowman and Chaucer's band ? Still, look on the bright side, at least there is not yet a conversion to Fawkes's Catholic Pizza Voodoo, I suppose deathbed is the time for that, be on the safe side. God must get a large number of unique visitors, but obviously not as many as order-order.

black hole sunset said...

It's here, Mr The Editor, the Beowulf program, but not, as yet, the one on Sutton Hoo.

Who would find threat, offence, in such beautiful artifacts, wonderful old poems or the Ruthwell Cross.

Both, and much more beside, smashed or burned beyond recovery, are a testament to human thought, ingenuity, artistry.

I hope you are wrong Mr Ishmael, about the swastikas, it would be a grave error indeed to meet one form of immoderation with a yet greater one.

woman on a raft said...

Since it's you, I will look again at Wood, but he owes me for that other book of his, the one where the cover distinctly implied he would find the historical King Arthur and yet he carried on for about 11 chapters saying "I dunno" and "could it be, nah".

His "In Search of Shakespeare" offering is in a similar vein. A mother-in-law who has hitherto not demonstrated any great animosity or grudge towards me bought it as a present, then watched me go bonkers while snowed in at Christmas as he squeezed 400 pages out of "Who Knows". Bryson knocked off the same material in about two chapters, and in bigger print. Although I suppose the printer might have had a hand in that. That was the same year I got the Paul Burrell book "Diana was always wearing my dresses". This is how Santa gets even with bad people.

If DtP also says it's a good show that's two positive votes, but I warn you, I'm sending a bill if the windows blow out again.

Verge said...

Dear Mr Ish, what is it about the old scriptures? Proud to be an old fart on this score but where poetry is concerned it's the sheer bloody craft of the old stuff that does it for me - John Donne versified the way Art Pepper played the sax, that is, all over the fucking place at times but always, always swinging. For some reason this rule iverts completely for me with prose (good Bible bits - for aesthetic reasons only you understand - excepted.) The older (stylistically, anyway) it is the sleepier I get. And I'm afraid your shipmate Herman does it for me worst of all - I keep a copy of Billy Budd by the bed as a nailed-on, last-resort soporific. This is probably as much a result of having had to "do" Middlemarch as a student as of my generally lazy, low-to-middle brow mindset, but I also think BS Johnson was onto something when he suggested a fundamental shift took place in the way we process/tolerate narrative when people started growing up with TV & film.

There's a memorial stone in the floor of Abbey Dore (worth a visit if anyone is on the road to Hay from direction of Hereford) commemorating three boys all dead within a month in 1813.
"Sad was the stroke, as such parental Grief,
Can find on Earth no adequate Relief,
Twas Heavn’s Decree, to which we must submit,
And take the bitter Draught, when God thinks fit."

Beats the hell out of "Your beloved Ethel/ Cries buckets @ yr death-knell."