Should St George’s Day become Shakespeare Day?

Today is St George’s Day, the national day of England. It has always seemed to be a bit of a poor relation: it doesn’t tend to be celebrated in the way that St Andrews’ Day, St David’s Day, or especially St Patrick’s Day do, even though there have been some efforts to revive it in recent years. Many English people – myself included, I must confess – don’t even know what date it is without being reminded.

There are various reasons why this may be the case. One that seems very pertinent to me is this: who the hell is St George anyway and what has he got to do with England? I was at the Marsden Write Out Loud poetry evening on Wednesday, where someone read an amusing poem about him which – I have established after a bit of research – appears to be largely true.

Turns out that St George is just about the most promiscuous patron saint there is, being associated with several other countries as well as many other places and organisations. He was a Roman Soldier who was executed in 303 AD under the orders of the emperor Diocletian for refusing to give up his Christian faith. We don’t know very much about his life. He seems to have been from the middle east – possibly what is now Syria or Turkey. There is no evidence that he ever visited England, which of course was not yet a country or cultural entity at that time. He seems to have been celebrated as a Christian martyr before and after the Norman conquest, and to have been adopted by English soldiers in the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War (‘Cry God for Harry, England and St George’, as it says in Shakespeare’s Henry V).

The days when the belief that a powerful saint was on your side could help you win a battle are long gone.  The inescapable fact underneath all that tradition is that the historical person who was St George had nothing to do with England at all.  This has caused some people to urge the reinstatement of St Edmund the Martyr (an Anglo-Saxon king of  East Anglia, killed by the Danes in 869) as our patron saint. But in this day and age, does the idea of a patron saint have the pull it used to anyway?  Many people in England – myself included – have no religious faith, while others follow other religions which might not wish to celebrate an icon of the Crusades.  St Edmund was, at least, English, but he was not (unlike his contemporary, King Alfred) an important figure in the history of the nation.  I can’t say that a celebration of St Edmund’s Day would get me out waving flags either.  If we are to have a national day at all, let it celebrate someone who has made a real contribution to our history and culture.

Which brings me to the author of that quote from Henry V mentioned above. Our greatest writer, and a man who played a huge role shaping the language and culture of the English speaking world.  It so happens that today, 23 April, is also the date when Shakespeare died and possibly the date when he was born (we don’t know the exact date, but he was baptised on 26 April).  And unlike St George, he was not a soldier. His achievements were artistic, not military: they can be celebrated without the risk of their acquiring undesirable overtones of martial nationalism.  23 April is already widely celebrated, not just in England, by admirers of Shakespeare.  The Scots have turned Burns Night into a great celebration of Scottish culture: why not forget about St George and rename our own national day of celebration as Shakespeare Day?

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Poetry and Music

Alongside writing, my other great creative passion has always been music – specifically the guitar, both electric and acoustic (though I have been known to play a bit of keyboards too).  I’ve been in a few bands in my time, but recent attempts to get some kind of combo together have not come to anything. There are few things more frustrating than putting a lot of effort into a cooperative endeavour only for it to fall apart without ever coming to fruition. I got rather disillusioned with the whole process.

Yet the urge to do something with music was still there. I could still play at home for my own pleasure, of course, and I could make recordings. But like any form of creative activity, music is in part a form of communication. It needs an audience as well as a performer. These days there is no shortage of opportunity to perform music to an audience, with the growing popularity of open mic nights. But there was a problem. I don’t sing. It’s not that I can’t hold a tune, but I really don’t like the sound of my singing voice. I don’t, in all honesty, think I could do justice to any kind of decent song.

So what could I do. Well, I can play solo fingerstyle acoustic guitar pieces. These seem to work well as musical interludes at literary events – and even the occasional wedding, in the past. So I have done a bit of solo acoustic guitar at open mics from time to time. And I suppose it’s gone down well enough – particularly if I go on fairly early in the evening when the audience is still reasonably sober! But I can’t help feeling that this kind of music doesn’t really have the right sort of vibe for open mics, where people are expecting something a bit more direct and in your face.

Tim-LoRes

The other thing I can do, of course, is read poetry, and I’ve done that a few times at open mics too.  But again, my stuff isn’t really the sort of barnstorming, polemic, performance poetry that works best in this kind of environment.  With these disheartening thoughts in mind, I drifted away from the open mic scene for a while.

Nevertheless, I did have an idea at the back of my mind. Maybe I could combine the poetry with the music?  I took inspiration from my friend Martin Christie, who (as Poet and the Loops) has done some great stuff with spoken (and occasionally sung) word, backed by electronic music.  (That’s him in the hat on the pic at the top of this post, introducing me at an open mic last Friday.)  Only instead of electronica, I would use guitars and a looper.

It turned out to be harder than I expected. Great, I thought, I have some music which should sound good as a backing to poetry, and some poems which would work well with music. Except that when I tried putting them together, they didn’t fit at all.  Back to the drawing board, and the idea went on the shelf for a while.  But eventually I decided I needed to get my act together.  Going through a lot of my poems, I finally found one that fitted quite well with a piece of music I wanted to use. And I wrote another specifically to go with a second piece.  I tried them out at an open mic at the Grape Room in Honley, (MC’d by Martin) last week and they seemed to go down well. It’s early days, but perhaps this is the way forward for me in terms of performance – a way of combining two things I love.

Next outing is at a Holmfirth Writers Group literary event tomorrow afternoon (1-3.30) at Dark Woods in Slaithwaite (Holme Mills, West Slaithwaite Road, HD7 6LS). It will be interesting to see whether the combination of poems and electric guitar loops works as well in this slightly more genteel environment. I will also be reading from my historical novel, Zeus of Ithome, and there will be lots of other great poetry and fiction, as well as refreshments including Dark Woods’ excellent coffee, roasted on site.  I’m looking forward to it!  If you’re in the area, why not drop in?

 

An Excuse for a Poem

Apparently, it’s National Poetry Writing Month in the USA.  I know this because fellow Crooked Cat author and recent visitor to this page Jennifer Wilson has taken it as a cue to post a poem on her blog every day for the whole month (see the one I reblogged earlier today – and check out Jen’s blog for more of them).

I’m not going to go quite that far, but this seems more than enough excuse to stick a poem of my own on here (just the one, probably, for now).  So here goes …

 

Behind the Stone

Upon the stone face of the world

the laughter of trees; the scars

of the battles of sun and snow.

Behind the stone, the graves of lost streams

and printed in rock, the fish of a swallowed sea:

locked in the ripples of time,

the clock of a billion years.

 

Upon the stone face of an old man

the scars of a war, the lines

etched in channels of childhood tears.

Behind the stone, the dreams of a boy,

the loves of a youth, the dull pain of slow decline:

a mind still clutching the joy

and the sadness of eighty years.

 

Out of grey eyes the old man is watching.

The face of the world still smiles and grows.

The treasures he holds so tightly for now

the stone will keep for ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NaPoWriMo 2016 – Day One

Nice poem from Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer C. Wilson

And we’re off! For the month of madness which is National Poetry Writing Month. I tend to post a day behind the prompts which come through, writing in the evening, posting in the morning, so I’m kicking off the month with a poem I wrote as part of one of Elaine’s Happy Planet workshops, tidied up last night.

Fifteen minutes a day

(After ‘My System’ by Lieut. J.P. Muller)

“Illness is generally one’s own fault”

He is waiting for the train.

He is seemingly always waiting for the train.

Bored, his eyes stray to the latest release,

handed to him by an equally bored colleague.

“Fifteen minutes’ exercise a day” promises:

a body that belongs in the Louvre,

carved into pristine marble, marvelled at

by snaking lines of admiring eyes.

Fifteen minutes a day and he’ll get the girl,

who smiled at him, once, and lit up his life.

Fifteen…

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