I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
You learn by example, boy; if you hang out with those scoundrels, you’ll become as they and with your outlook and energy, no doubt significantly worse!
Before I cover my person in egg, a small but essential thread, gathered here, is from brain-driven history lessons, from time is, when time was, at school. Putting head to the case, turning over the dirt of what had gone before, it is a relief to find I am not as balsamic as I thought. Although the schools I went to failed me, there is reclamation and memory enough to oil the stretch of my imagination all these centuries later. The danger in being a screwball was getting strung out on the syntax, then giving up in a tangle of dates and confuted facts, as is my wont. Infuriating as dotting I’s and crossing T’s could be, there was a particular lesson that turned the tutorage on its head.
Like most of the village gang, I grew up believing we lived on a plateau of lands surrounded by a seascape stretching afar, that poured off the edge into a vast space. This was one of a few salient facts I knew to be true, a belief held to heart until I leapt faith, stow aboard a wind vessel and venture that place where eyes set and the sun goes to live again. Embarking on this journey was to prove an uneasy challenge. The thought of being carried by a mighty outpouring of water cascading into the abyss was mindboggling, a great deal scarier than anything we could have imagined or lived through up till then.
We drifted becalmed for days. Left to our own meanderings, daemonic frictions accumulate, fester, then entangle us. What started with whispers in the gallery grew in stature until the entire ship seemed crazed by a fantom hell. The tattletale that blinded our lead overwhelmed by almighty powers that in the end proved our survival.
Blasted and bruised to a throw, we tie ourselves and anything that moved tight to the brig; let her have her way with the roar. The surge of a storm pounding us headlong toward what we all thought to be the fall. Then nothing but darkness.
The wild winds and rampant rains subside. As light drew across a war-torn deck, it soon became clear our skiff had run aground, stuck fast in shallows, skirting a curve of hills and trees as far as the eye could see. Issues, dilemmas and more challenged everyone’s metal, but no crashing out, nae a plummet from the cliff-edge in sight. Like everything that happens within a fixed quantum of time and space, things are never what they seem. We had come as deep as we might to realise we could ride a wind path further still. Beyond this, who knows what befalls the traveller? After some days of fish, berries and nut-water, the big moon released our battered ketch to the sea and, full of excitement, mindful of the endless peregrination, turned a course for home.
Unexpected as the outcome of this journey had been, on reaching the foothold of another’s shore, where a death drop should have been, it soon became clear that the cut-and-dried formulae I was being peddled back in the classroom did not suit my wayward nature. This epiphanic insight was more an affirmation of something that bedevilled my equilibrium from the first day in the nursery. If it hadn’t been for the wisdom and patience of Mr Jones, who relayed such a story to our eager ears, all those years back, I would no doubt have accepted the constitution of schooling as a foregone conclusion for life.
Mr Jones, as you may recall, was the Welsh history teacher, empathic and tough enough to keep us glued to the desk without winding up the clock too much. While he persevered with I Ching furtherance, we went to the well, the edges of civilisation, immersing ourselves in other ages. The devil’s in the detail, he’d mumble, and whilst you won’t get through the test without them, they are not the point — an aside I always felt, more a reminder to himself rather than a pointer for us; but for those who caught him with his guard down, immensely reassuring. With that nugget in tow, we learnt how each era brought new and radical changes from what had gone before.
On the surface, our history wasn’t difficult to grasp. The reformation seemed palpable. Our most dramatic example of human advancement appeared to be at the forefront of warfare. Domestically, food is increasingly diverse and accessible. The utensils with which we cook a little more sophisticated. The tools used to build a table, chair, the architecture, cities, roads, drainage, the infrastructure favoured an evolutive process moving ahead at pace. Undermining and driving the ongoing domestication are lawmakers and breakers keeping the plebeians under the thumb. Chiefs and senators are working the floor, switching friends for traitors, traitors for friends, scheming and plotting for the throne. Hello, smile, knife in the back, a broken heart, full of suspicion for the other; this leader, or the other, for and against, one down two to go; an air of constant unease leads to a constitutional gridlock that brings the country to its knees with the onslaught of war. We were climaxing in a bloodbath on the main-stage.
War, as I recollect, always had our full attention. The extra-curricular activities and wealth accumulation may have been out of our league, but combat between ruling families seemed triggered by the same maxim that we stuck by. Marshalled by comrades in arms, savvy with strategy, enthralled by artillery, preoccupied with tactics, we were all too familiar with a battle demography.
Growing up in the smoking remnants of an empire, corporal punishment and forecourt fights played a central part in the schoolboy’s life — survival of the fittest saw bullies and sadistic teachers having the last word. If a severe caning didn’t catch you unawares, some incoming fist was going to smack you off guard eventually — fight, a fight! Where? There! Back of the sheds, said the wretch to the angel, there’s a fight. A FIGHT! We knew well how frictions between any of us could start with a warning that would plague the days. The threatening note in assembly, the sharp end of the pen, pushed and prodded at the desk, in the showers, the locker rooms, between shifts, inside hell, outside the gates, forever and a day, until a clash of the titans became inevitable.
Hurt or offend someone, especially in a close-knit family, they retaliate. There might be a time-lapse before the retort, a split second perhaps — if the barb hasn’t quite sunk in, or the loser is out cold, the reaction comes later, if not minutes, another day, next week, a year, a decade, on the hour. The offence’s rank informs the measure of revenge, plotting, planning, the strength of poison and so on.
Were we led by the rule of law, kick-started in the distant neurons of an ancestral layer, or tied to the genesis of conflict at birth? Boys keen to settle a score using the fist seemed more adept physically and undoubtedly shown slick moves from a world-weary father or a hardened brother. Keep the head low, avoid the eyes, light on foot, quiet as you like; eventually, the shyest of stragglers got sucked into the fray.
Egged on by eager boys, some nervous, others bold, head between the one in front, eyeballing the clash, pushing in, most excited, braying like spectators, hungry for blood at a gladiatorial arena. Do it, do it! Kick him in the rocks, kill, kill him, go on, finish him off!
I held my nerve until my nose got hit, then lose it, lashing out in all directions, a tear-driven snot ball of rage, missing the target by miles. Fallen and loaded in disgrace, I offered admission to my failings, hoping to leave the ring with some integrity. Holding my head high, until out of sight, I’d skulk off in a sour mumble vying for some mean-fisted payback of which the torment and pent-up fury saw little or no respite till I saw the deed done. Shocked, furious, not beaten, drawn, or quartered. Restless by a mile, pacing the floor on the backend of a sleepless night, revenge seems sweet in repose. The thought of a dagger driven into the scoundrel when least expecting it was nothing less than lifesaving and given the curriculum and strict school policies, hardly surprising.
For all the career-based rhetoric and moral flag-waving, internally, privately, in marriage, in death, in politics, religion, military, consortiums, in academies, in science, even in the arts, on guard, one step ahead, one over the other, remains distilled in time as the mainstay and mastery of the human life. Nothing wrong with hierarchies, a leader led team effort, we wouldn’t have the social, economic, health values we have now without them. But in adapting that killer instinct, that’s often suggested when talking about seizing the trophy in a game, rising to the top in academia, the chosen career — knocked off the back end of a combat zone, the penultimate staging in history — we took the role literally, hid behind the machismo mask, holding off cruel teachers and like-minded boys in threatening proximity. Preservation of a favoured race was the foregone conclusion. We won, by taking civilisation, ethnicity and governance, across uncharted waters, to the wild beyond and ramming the evaluator’s ethnic code down the throat of peoples who we saw fit to do with as we wish. Staking claim to the lands, stealing, shackling, raping, looting, selling their lives in relentless succession, onwards and upwards, for crowns’ accounts.
Shamefaced and browbeaten by the clock, what’s done cannot be undone. If I am the troglodyte on trial here, and I suspect I am, I have no excuses for actions made in the storms of my past. But of those who set the trend before me, in defence — two tango — beliefs and opinions, like dances, are complicit. As thugs go, I was ill-educated, not uneducated — a sensitive and vulnerable Tartufe, born in innocence and bred to sit on the extreme side of the chamber. Too dark, too much, too late, too soon, said the empiric ruler to the fool, turning him to stone. Heartbreak and grief inform the mind to shut down, while terror, like a shroud of fog creeping across a mote, seeping up ramparts, over battlements, through arrow loops and under doors, finds a way in to douse the light.
So why not unlock the story, unearth the play, the penultimate phenomena, before identity, judgements, and boxes ticked, fix conviction in place? You never know; temperance may strike a richer seam.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
In playing his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for beguiled fools, Prince Hamlet summons a poetic force that acknowledges the Planet’s mastery, proves his love of the creation and applauds the embodiment of humankind. But such is anger, the emotional weight he carries; he dismisses the earth as something alien, the celestial home nothing but repugnant gases. Simultaneously, men and women, intelligent, heroic, graceful as they can be, boil down and spoil to a jaded legacy. Smirk if you must, I’m not here to jive — veracity is a liar, ain’t that the truth!
So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus’d. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
Challenged by the visitation of his father’s ghost, we might remain unsure; delayed reaction to the death of a loved one, psychological angst, hallucinations, a prince’s lament. Why so, maudlin? For the love of God, everyone grieves. His sittings seem pitiful. Look to your studies, take a hobby, anything but this self-indulgent waffle; we are all extremely sorry! Now, for the love of God, for family, mother, and country, let’s get over it. And move on! The aggrieved and uncertain mood remains in place until Hamlet mounts a play that depicts the scene of the crime, plucked from the visions of his father’s stricken spirit. And such is the aim; the player hits the bull’s eye, triggering an unstoppable reaction from Denmark’s court.
His uncle’s knee-jerk response to the play is tantamount to admission of treason and murder. Now, even the most sceptical among us stand alongside the Prince’s revelation, his fear, revolt, and requital. Truth proves love, the closest of friends, is the maddest and saddest of heartbreak. The court’s descent into paranoid insularity is inevitable. His uncle, overwhelmed by moral decline and lust for the crown, counters Hamlet to the margins until death wields a deadly sword on the return. Protagonist and antagonist, duelling for retribution, poisons the other, leaving the noble heart broken and the fundaments of honour for us to read in the silence of our prayers.
Power and wealth you can have, but a calm heart, and a clear conscience, may disband you.
Be it Shakespeare, or the complexities and intrigue of another exporter of myth and verve, prince or pauper, titlist or thief, marked down as labour intensive, as we were; we were unsuitable for such insight. Yet most of us weather-heads, given our physiological prowess and wit, would have figured the plays completely, for we knew the trickery, faultiness and how to work or avoid an avenging encounter instinctively. Here lies the shame in fragmenting the fields of learning. If we want to find out why insularity and jingoism are an overwhelming fixture of our lives today, surely we need to open our past to the present, our hearts and minds to other spectrums of schooling, an altogether different, holistic approach.
The deep end of a play can reveal first hand that the most honourable among us are not immune to terrifying and absurd disclosure. Working the moment, sorting out personal differences, catching emotional malfunctions en route, gaining trust for the other, only this time around, the fellowship brings us together, with enough deference for that old paradigm of indifference and constant need for revenge to change. Or should we accept postulated values, rejig the blocking, pat ourselves on the back for getting the facts right and continue with the same whitewash. Too loud to scream, too quiet to dream. Can it be that we call our childhood years formative to live out a worn-out cliché, unapologetic in bigotry, duplicity, ascendancy, our right to overrule and so on?
Stage managing, lighting, set building, composing, design, psychology, painting, singing — Maths, English, Woodwork, Metalwork, Art, History, all subjects addressed in the alchemy of making a play.
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, like diamonds we are cut with our own dust. John Webster
Officer, actor, nurse, cadet, pilot, addict, bright, jaded, failure, success, whatever label adorns, we come together to tell a story plucked from the history of our lives. It is an emotional, psychological, and even dangerous challenge that can seem exciting and profound to some, controversial, unthinkable to the other. The tale that unties the entanglement of past confusion and hurt clears the present air of ignorance. A possibility that brings insight to the absolutist in us stops us from being head-butted into inertia and distrust, not to mention the distinct loss of awareness of Earth and its celestial spheres.
Let me know
Wherefore I should be thus neglected. Sir,
I serv’d your tyranny, and rather strove
To satisfy yourself than all the world:
And though I loath’d the evil, yet I lov’d
You that did counsel it; and rather sought
To appear a true servant than an honest man.
The Duchess holds her own to the hands of her brother’s unending need for one over the matriarch, warding off their savage hunger for control until death is an escape, preferable to the inevitable insanity and deterioration that follows.
For those of us who thought we were tough, shaking a spear in this horror show would have been a massive wake-up call, like going some place as an evacuee, realising you might not get back to mum and dad again. John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is about as dark and horrific as human conditioning can get. The Jacobean play draws in tension so tight; the story spans centuries. While the blood lust may seem loud, the play’s power still illuminates underlying discourse for the ruptured family, a political coup, or celebrated conglomerate in the 21st Century.
Step into the guts of Malfi, under the throw of such a gang, and go the length it takes to survive the bleakest corner — a full-on initiation worthy of heroism. Crossing boundaries between gender, challenging the logic of masculine ascendancy, the jury is out. Yet, the trial alone would have been enough to draw light on our prejudices and transgressions, which were growing by the hour.
That which is subjugated today becomes beholden tomorrow.
Gentlemen were trained in eloquence and the arts of war; gentlewomen, were urged to keep silent and attend to their needlework. In men, a will to dominate was admired or at least assumed; in women, it was viewed as dangerous or grotesque. A truism for much of our history. With this conviction in mind, Webster was putting his life on the line in the publication and performing of the Duchess of Malfi in 1614.
Far back in time or recent memory, it is not possible to understand the more profound implications of how the past informs the present without help from the dramatist, poet, engraver, linguist, and geologist, physicist, biologist, psychologist, and other expertise — working as one given the calm before the storm.
On 22 September 1598, while his first successful play, Every Man in his Humour, was in performance, Ben Jonson was under arrest for killing the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Jonson escaped the hangman’s tie because of a legal loophole granted by benefit of clergy — any man fluent in Latin stood as a cleric and therefore immune to secular law. A working relationship that ended a life to the tune of murder. Bricklayer, soldier, rebel, scholar and master of the sword, he may have been, but it seems Ben Jonson’s extraordinary ability with words saved his place in the chamber. Accused, acquitted and celebrated, Jonson became an acclaimed playwright, thought to be our first poet laureate, a comic muse, with a portfolio of plays only Shakespeare could match.
Soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still while thy book doth live
And we have wits to read and praise to give.
Shine forth, thou star of poets, and with rage
Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage;
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourn’d like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light.
Extract from the eulogy to William Shakespeare by Ben Jonson
The past catches up with us until the day we are born; only then does the present meet the future. Have I gone off on a tangent with the dramatist? Not quite! A model code, our rights and wrongs are born of fear and fortitude, tears and laughter, the comic and tragic trajectory drawn from history in our backyard.
We find repose, apperception, execution and arbitration in the best and worst of literacy. Bang to rights doesn’t mean scuppered. A novice wordsmith snatches a line between life and death.
I’m not sure I follow? That’s my line. What line? I’m not sure I follow. Follow what? The line. Shall I look it up? What? The line, I’ll look it up! Sorry, what line? I thought we were off line? Going out, may be awhile.
With what display will allow, before facts fall into farce, I will do my best to stay on course in a terrane as complex as it is oceanic. How does anyone remain focused in an age of digital overload, where unlimited knowledge brings up so many unanswerable questions at the tap of a phone? Travel any strait, cross any mountain, take any random route; the tangents and offshoots are everywhere, so gather wind to the sails, helm amidships and aim for the reaches of the world.
An ice age can last hundreds of millions of years. When that age appears to have passed, the motion and movement left in its wake continues, affecting geographical and biological stratospheres, an ongoing process corresponding with and informing Earth’s activity, in this all-inclusive, all-encompassing, present.
In 2016, a carbon dating of bones from a brown bear excavated in County Clare, Ireland, came up at 12,500 years old. And the readings confirm the bear as hunted, butchered and cooked by humans, who possibly crossed a glacial land-bridge, linking south-west England to south-east Ireland, during the last ice age. Dated between 10860 and 10641 BC, these are the earliest known findings of human habitation in Ireland. Are these people, who left England back in the Palaeolithic era, by bridge or boat, the root of Irish descent? If so, who were their forebears?
Art is nothing but the expression of our dream; the more we surrender to it, the closer we get to the inner truth of things, our dream-life, the true life that scorns questions and does not see them. Franz Marc
Do the paintings found in a complex of caves in the Dordogne region of southwestern France tell us of a cultured people in deification and wonder of life. Is their apparent artistic dexterity, thought to be around 17,000 years old, reminiscent of great painters and printmakers like Franz Marc and Pablo Picasso, who turned to the grace and power of an animal as expressive in the 20th century, coincidental? Were they aware of leaving such a marked trail? Where did their journey begin?
A recent discovery of stone tools, unearthed on the coast of Norfolk, was carbon-dated to reveal a human presence between 950,000 and 700,000 years ago. Were these ancestors the first of us to settle in England? Wherever they came from, they stayed in the area until the animals grew weary, the berries and root vegetables scarce. When the resources run thin, do or die, these hunter-gatherers, compelled to seek food further afield, move on and on, out of the immediate wilderness into the next. Were they following a migratory path? Did they walk from continental Europe over the land that was to Britain and onwards toward Ireland? We may not qualify or quantify their journey; with the invention of radiocarbon dating in 1946, we have a genuine sense of who they were and their incredible ability to survive.
With the instruments of science today, it is possible to analyse and collect data from Earth’s formation and structure, which tell us of ages preceding the Triassic and Jurassic period, an eternity before humans. This data tells how that age, way back in the annals of time, shapes, and informs the World’s course today.
Billions of years ago, a reflex action creates waves of actions and reactions that make the first known ice age. This epoch rebounds successively, with an infinite amount of actions and reactions that flow, mould, shape and inform the earth’s existence as it spins on its axis and revolves around the Sun today. Likewise, and to lesser or greater degrees every other age, every creature, animal, plant, insect, right down to subatomic molecules create and created by a continuing process of cause and effect — galaxy upon galaxy, a universe within a universe, forming and informing, life after death, death after life, composing and decomposing in everlasting, all-encompassing…..
Bring in human sophistication and purpose — my world, your planet, our galaxy, their age, my lifetime, our land and so on — it might seem as we have the rule of law, ownership, over and above existence. Objectifying actuality, in the same way, we fix ideas, materials and money in place — to make or break life. In fear of hunger, a mind, pinned to the banks of existence, ekes out a living or sinks with the flow. Filtered and made up, we bow in thanks to a god that breaches the underbelly of clouds with a blow.
When our survival is under fire, setting out boundaries, filtering out the dregs, how else would we rise to meet the best of our kind? Conquest represents the bulk of what it means to be human. We stake our claim or go the way of the dodo — is this the example you foretold, sir?
Representatives, leaders, and companies sit around the table to negotiate the lot on offer. The more prolific the product, the greater need there is for resources to feed the result. Who sustains, who deprives, determines those who have the most leverage. Who are we if we are not of country and family dependent on Earth in kind? What is Earth, if starved of biodiversity and ethical husbandry?
If history doesn’t overwhelm us, the plague might, then do we accept lockdown as the end of life?
Of course not! Bells and whistles on the outside are nice, but humans don’t make the trees grow, a kingfisher glide to swoop, the stream to gurgle like a baby, or the sun to light up the day. Here for such a sweet short time, rather than leave for mars, put our money where our mouth is, nurture nature to thrive so that those who come after might survive.
Do we run from what has gone before, seeking hope with some imagined absolution in the future, or step off the angelic, demonic carousel and work to blossom, a human being over the human doing?
This chapter of life, this earth born presence, continues to commodify our surroundings, an opportunity to buy, swap and control nature for a place we have in mind on the morrow. Insignificant as we may feel, our clambering to make our mark may have a more significant knock-on effect than we ever realise.
The threat of an alien invasion, broadside, along with the massive increase in population, has become ever more embroiled. You’re right; I’m wrong! Good, now get in line, bigot! However life comes, whatever shape, corporate, consumer, evolved, unevolved, our domination, a tidal wave of given authority, sweeps across millennia, century to century. No matter how far back we go with imperial intervention, the repercussions and effects we have on Earth remain irreversible.
From the oldest Empire, Akkadian, to the Vikings, Phoenicians, Greeks, Egyptians, Alexandrians, and Achaemenid, the First Persian Empire set the teachings and beliefs in motion for one person to overrule the other, that our way holds sway. Our ancestral line, with its autocratic ruling, as you taught us so eloquently all those years ago, is closer to home, well documented, and if we care to look acknowledged in our collective coding today.
Celtic people inhabited Briton from the Iron Age through to the Middle Ages, 750 years. Under Julius Caesar’s leadership, the Romans invaded Briton in 54 BC as part of his long-lasting military campaign against the Celts. And after four hundred years of Roman rule came the Normans.