MONTHLY BLOG 137, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 5: COMMEMORATIVE WALK IN HONOUR OF RADICAL (AND CONTROVERSIAL) IRISH HERO

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98),
pan-Irish nationalist,
republican and
revolutionary leader

Continuing the story of through-time links from the Georgian era,1 this BLOG focuses upon a highly significant commemorative walk at Bodenstown (co. Kildare). It celebrates each summer the short life and visionary hopes of the revolutionary Irishman, Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98).

He was known as a man of principle and valour. Yet his political views were highly utopian and equally controversial. He hoped to unite his fellow Irishmen, whether Anglican, Presbyterian or Catholic, through a shared commitment to Irish nationalism and republicanism.2 He did not, however, have any practical plans to overcome centuries of religious mistrust and the power imbalance between the contending faiths. (Not an easy task in any era).

In the event, Wolfe Tone chose alliance with revolutionary France. Nothing could be more likely to enrage the Irish Protestant establishment and the British government. When therefore in summer 1798 a radical alliance of United Irishmen launched a rebellion,3 the official response was quick and decisive repression. Wolfe Tone meanwhile sailed from self-exile in France, with a French raiding party, to support the uprising. But he was caught, identified, and convicted by court-martial as a traitor. Soon after, he died in a Dublin prison, the night before he was due to be hung. It may well have been suicide. It certainly was immediate political failure.

However, over time, Wolfe Tone became a paradoxical legend.4 There are today sundry public monuments to him as an Irish patriot. Catholics especially saw him as pioneer of separatist nationalism. That cause was certainly highly important to him. Yet Wolfe Tone’s desire for an associated process of reconciliation between Ireland’s contending faiths was publicly ignored.

It was Catholics who began, a generation after his death, to visit his grave at Bodenstown in tribute. From 1873 onwards (with gaps in some years) the commemorative format evolved into a communal walk. The route starts at Sallins station, thus allowing many Dubliners to attend by train. And the procession makes its way to the Bodenstown graveyard – a distance of about 2.5 km or just over 1.5 miles – where wreaths are laid and a prominent speaker gives an oration.5

Broadly, the atmosphere is both respectful and celebratory. However, there are sometimes tensions between rival political groups. And sometimes even rival processions. Moreover, when in 1934, a radical group of Belfast Presbyterians walked the walk, carrying banners saluting Wolfe Tone, they were met by punches and kicks from the Catholic crowd. This cold welcome was allegedly ordered by the IRA.6 It was not in the spirit of Wolfe Tone.

Co-walking in support of a common cause can promote harmony and rally support. Music adds a festive touch, and helps the walkers to maintain the pace. Flying flags and banners can meanwhile enlighten onlookers. Walks and marches are a flexible and democratic form of public affirmation. They do not require huge funds. Numbers participating may be tiny or huge, depending on the cause, the legal status of public gatherings, and, sometimes too, the weather.

Little wonder then that there are many varieties of communal walks. They range from protest marches, to commemorative walks, to sponsored fund-raising hikes, to organised parades, and on to military and high-school marching bands. Together, these peregrinations constitute a secularised update of traditional religious pilgrimages – which, of course, also continue.7 Within that global phenomenon, Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics have long sponsored rival marches, is a walking hotspot. And the Irish overseas also remain notable community walkers.

The full message of Wolfe Tone’s personal career and his legendary afterlife is, however, a sombre one. It takes more than goodwill and walking together to achieve real reconciliation between contending groups. Violence and counter-violence generate bitterness and resentments, which can often last for centuries. Reconciliation entails inculcating genuine toleration, confronting frankly past misdeeds, righting wrongs (on all sides), achieving a degree of power redistribution or readjustment, opening economic opportunities for all, and generating pan-community trust and love. Not an easy programme, at any time. Hard to achieve in one divided country (let alone globally). But as urgent today as under the Georgians, as no doubt Wolfe Tone would staunchly insist.

ENDNOTES

1 P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022), p. 390.

2 T. Bartlett (ed.), Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, comp. W.T. Wolfe Tone (Dublin, 1998); S. McMahon, Wolfe Tone (Cork, 2001); M. Elliott, Wolfe Tone (Liverpool, 2012).

3 M. Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (1982); T. Packenham, The Year of Liberty (1969; repr. 1998); J. de Cazottes, L’Irelande entre independance et révolution: Wolfe Tone, 1763-98 … (Paris, 2005).

4 S. Ollivier, Presence and Absence of Wolfe Tone during the Centenary Commemoration of the 1798 Irish Rebellion (Dublin, 2001); P. Metscher, Republicanism and Socialism in Ireland: From Wolfe Tone to James Connolly (Dublin, 2016).

5 C.J. Woods: Bodenstown Revisited: The Grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone, its Monuments and its Pilgrimages (Dublin, 2018).

6 ‘Our Feral Tribalism Unleashed’, The Irish Times (2 May 2022).

7 L.K. Davidson and D.M. Gitlitz, Pilgrimage – from the Ganges to Graceland: An Encyclopedia (2002).

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MONTHLY BLOG 136, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 4: ENJOYING THE ANNUAL DUCK FEAST

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This BLOG resumes the theme of links between the Georgian era and the present.1 To do that, it takes one remarkable case-history, that of the Wiltshire poet, Stephen Duck (c.1705-56). [Yes, that was his real name] He was the son of an impoverished agricultural labourer. It’s likely that both his parents were illiterate. Yet Stephen Duck not only grew to gain poetic fame during his relatively short life but has been honoured ever since by an annual Duck Feast, held in his home village of Charlton, near Pewsey in Wiltshire.2

Undoubtedly, this convivial event must be the longest-running literary commemoration to be found anywhere in Britain. It is a manifestation of local community pride, as well as a tribute to creative poetic output from an obscure individual, whose merits helped him to rise in the world.

There were many such ‘shooting stars’ from modest backgrounds in eighteenth-century Britain. The expansion of towns and trade (and literacy) provided ample new opportunities for talent. Duck’s career was a classic case study in both opportunities and obstacles.

These Feasts (scheduled in early June) actually began during Duck’s lifetime. They were funded by a gift from a local bigwig, who gave a piece of land to the village in perpetuity. That provided a practical basis for the celebrations, initially confined to small numbers of men from Charlton village. A presiding host, known as the Chief Duck, welcomes guests and gives the toasts, while, over time, the format of the Feast has been adapted.

During the evening, verses from Stephen Duck’s first and most famous poem, The Thresher’s Labour (1730), are read aloud. His poetry has some elements of ornate diction. As a promising youth, he had been given access to the classics of English literature by his charity-schoolteacher and other local worthies. However, the striking feature of Duck’s most famous work was its gritty realism. The Georgian agricultural year relied upon intensive and monotonous manual labour. And, at the height of the harvest, threshing the grain was tough work, continuing unabated throughout a long summer’s day. Stephen Duck recalled the experience:

In briny Streams, our Sweat descends apace,

Drops from our Locks, or trickles down our Face.

No Intermission in our Work we know;

The noisy Threshal [two-handed flail] must for ever go.

Neighbours who toasted the man and his muse were happy to admire, if not necessarily to share, this hard toil. During the eighteenth century, a quiet re-evaluation of the importance of manual work was taking place. John Locke and, especially, Adam Smith explored the contribution of labour to the creation of economic value. And readers in their parlours appreciated verses by poets from varied walks of life, including the newly literate workers.

Duck was thus a portent of change. Another poet from ‘low-life’ was Ann Yearsley (1753-1806), the Bristol ‘milk-woman’.3 She flourished a generation after Duck, with the support of a literary patron. Another example was the little-known James Woodhouse (1735-1820), ‘the shoemaker poet’, who eventually made a living as a bookseller.4 And in the early nineteenth century, John Clare (1793-1864), a farm labourer’s son from Northamptonshire, wrote poems of anguished beauty.5

All found it hard to progress from early success to something more permanent. The one exception was Scotland’s brilliant balladeer, Robert Burns (1759-96), the son of an Ayrshire tenant farmer.6 Financially, he always lived from hand to mouth, never attaining great riches. He did, however, have some ballast from his post as an exciseman [tax collector]. That enabled Burns to pour out his evocative poems and songs – thus mightily extending his audience. Today, he is honoured by the now world-wide tradition of annual Burns Night festivals,7 on a scale far, far exceeding the Duck Feast in Wiltshire.

By contrast, Stephen Duck lacked a steady profession. For a while, he enjoyed royal patronage and a pension from Queen Caroline, wife of George II. Yet, after her death in 1737, his career stalled. Duck later took orders as an Anglican clergyman. After all, there were major literary figures within the eighteenth-century Church of England – Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne being two outstanding exemplars.

Nonetheless, the clerical life did not suit Duck. Quite possibly he found that the social transition from the fields into literary and professional society, without a secure income, was too psychologically unsettling. Stephen Duck was also, in this great age of satire, the butt of robust teasing for his plebeian origins. And his best-known poem was quickly parodied, as The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730) – penned by an anonymous author who called himself Arthur Duck.8

It’s not easy, however, to read another’s heart. Stephen Duck’s life continued. He married twice; had children. It was some time before his career ran definitively into the sands. But, in 1756, he committed suicide.

Ultimately, Stephen Duck became and remained a quiet symbol of social advancement and literary change. He was not the only impoverished Georgian labourer’s son to gain fame. Captain James Cook (1728-79), the global explorer, came from a similar background. Yet, in his case, the navy provided a career structure (and a route to controversy via the mutual meetings/misunderstandings of global cultures).9 Cook’s name is now commemorated in many locations around the world. There is even a crater on the moon, named after him.

Stephen Duck, by contrast, is celebrated in Charlton in Wiltshire, not with a name-plate but, aptly enough, with a Feast. Just what was needed after a long day’s labour in the fields, as Duck had specified:

A Table plentifully spread we find,

And Jugs of humming Ale, to cheer the Mind …

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds & Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (2022); and website: https://www.thegeorgiansdeedsandmisdeeds.com.

2 R. Davis, Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet (Orono, Maine, 1926).

3 A. Yearsley, Poems on Several Occasions (1785; reissued, 1994); R. Southey, Lives of Uneducated Poets (1836), pp. 125-34; K. Andrews, Ann Yearsley and Hannah More, Patronage and Poetry: The Story of a Literary Relationship (2015).

4 [J. Woodhouse], Poems on Sundry Occasions, by James Woodhouse a Journeyman Shoemaker (1764).

5 E. Blunden (ed.), Sketches in the Life of John Clare, Written by Himself (1974); J. Bate, John Clare’s New Life (Cheltenham, 2004); S. Kövesi, John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History (2017).

6 I. McIntyre, Robert Burns: A Life (1995; 2001); R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011); G.S. Wilkie, Robert Burns: A Life in Letters (Glasgow, 2011).

7 PJC, BLOG/ 133 (Jan. 2022), in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs.

8 A. Duck [pseud.], The Thresher’s Miscellany (1730).

9 J. Robson (ed.), The Captain Cook Encyclopaedia (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 135, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 3: THE SCOTTISH MUSIC OF NIEL GOW

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Close-up of sculptor David Annand’s statue of legendary
Scottish fiddler Niel Gow (1727-1807),
erected in 2020 near his childhood home in
Strathbaan, Perthshire.

At a time of international crisis over Ukraine, it seems heartless to continue normal life. And, in particular, it could seem inappropriate to be writing about something as jolly and convivial as the music of eighteenth-century Scotland’s legendary fiddler, Niel Gow (1727-1807). But it helps to stick to routines, which in this case means posting my monthly BLOG.

Music, moreover, is a mighty medium for expressing the full range of human emotions. Niel Gow, born in Strathbaan, Perthshire, came from a modest background to become feted as a composer and fiddler.1 And, among his output, are some famous laments. Indeed, in the long eras before the advent of the radio, musicians had to be ready to switch quickly in style from sad to jolly, from slow to brisk, from simple to intricate, as occasion required. They provided their listeners with a soundtrack for both daily life and special events.

Gow initially began his working life as a weaver. Yet his manual dexterity and his musicality were, between them, sufficiently notable that he soon began to make a name as a fiddler. (A fiddle is the demotic name for a violin, when the instrument is used for ‘folk’ music). He then won some local competitions – which were taken seriously in Perthshire, a ‘big county’ that cherishes its musical traditions. And, once he found a well-connected patron, Gow was able to work as a professional musician.

James Murray, 2nd Duke of Atholl (1690-1764), was a successful Scottish politician, who lived down the Jacobite affiliations of his older brother (who lost his title and lands after 1715), and thereafter prospered as a solid pro-Unionist. He called upon the services of Gow to play music at balls and dances, held by the Scottish nobility. Such gatherings were, for Atholl, handy ways of shoring up pro-Hanoverian social networks.

For Gow, such employment was a break-through. It gave him access to a world of Scottish lairds who were ready to pay for his services at their social gatherings. The role of a professional musician was a new and potentially risky one. But he was able to flourish, and continued to do so, long after the Duke’s death in 1764. Gow meanwhile lived simply and brought up his large family in a traditional single-story stone cottage in Inver, near Dunkeld. Outside the village, on the banks of the Tay, is the massive oak tree, where he was reported to sit composing music.2 Yet Inver was also well placed for working trips into urban centres like Perth and Dundee. They gave him access to music publishers – and, via the press, to the wider world.

Scotland’s fast-expanding Lowland economy from the mid-eighteenth century onwards was becoming sufficiently wealthy to support not only the growth of towns, trade and industry but the parallel expansion of a new service economy.3 Musicians were among the emergent new professions. They provided a ‘whole Tribe of Singers and Scrapers’, fitted for ‘this Musical Age’, as one occupational handbook observed, somewhat wryly, in 1747.4 It was in that context, that Gow’s son Nathaniel was able to follow in his father’s footsteps. So he too played and composed for the fiddle.

Especially prominent among the output of Niel Gow were his Scottish country dances. Many are still played at ceilidhs and festive events today. Some were new compositions. Others were rearrangements or ‘borrowings’ (often unacknowledged) from older dance music.5 There was then, however, no stigma attached to such reworkings. Robert Burns similarly adapted older verses and tunes in his own prolific output, which also combined both old and new.6

Their audiences positively relished the consolidation of a proud ‘Scottish’ poetic and musical tradition.7 It brought old legacies into the mainstream.  Any separatist tinge of association with the outlawed Jacobites – supporters of the exiled Stuart kings – was shed, whilst a living cultural heritage was enhanced.

So rich is this updated repertoire that English-speaking audiences to this day continue to enjoy Scottish dances and Highland laments. In part, global enthusiasm was boosted by the widespread Scottish diaspora. Yet music has always had the power to transcend ethnic and cultural boundaries.

To honour one notable creator of Scotland’s musical tradition, an annual Niel Gow Festival has been hosted each March since 2004, in the village of Dunkeld & Birnam (Perth & Kinross). The next will be held on 18-20 March 2022.8 This place is often described as a ‘Gateway to the Highlands’. Conversely, changing the motto, it might also be said that the music of Niel Ross constituted a cultural bridge from the Highlands to the wider world … Let that be a happy portent that out of old conflicts can come sustained peace and fertile creativity.

ENDNOTES:

1 For Niel Gow (1727-1807), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niel_Gow [accessed 28 Feb. 2022]; and H. Jackson,  Niel Gow’s Inver (Perth, 2000). Gow’s first name was sometimes rendered as Neil or Neal.

2 Now a tourist attraction: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niel_Gow’s_Oak [accessed 28 Feb. 2022].

3 D. Allen, Scotland in the Eighteenth Century; Union and Enlightenment (Harlow, 2002).

4 R. Campbell, The London Tradesman … (1757), p. 93. For context, see also C. Ehrlich, The Music Profession in Britain since the Eighteenth Century: A Social History (Oxford, 1985), pp. 1-53.

5 See tunes by Niel Gow, played on his own fiddle, in CD Album recorded by Pete Clark, Even Now: The Music of Niel Gow (Smiddymade Recordings SMD615, Perthshire, Scotland, 1999). And context in D. Johnson, Scottish Fiddle Music in the Eighteenth Century: A Music Collection and Historical Study (Edinburgh, 1984).

6 See e.g. C. Campbell and others, Burns and Scottish Fiddle Tradition (Edinburgh 2000); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1834 (Leiden, 2015).

7 S. McKerrell and G. West (eds), Understanding Scotland Musically: Folk, Tradition and Policy (2018); F.M. Collinson, The Traditional and National Music of Scotland (2021).

8 For details, see https://www.niel-gow.co.uk.

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Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume, brandishing a bottle of port, his pockets bulging with comic props.

MONTHLY BLOG 134, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 2

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1837) in full clown costume,
brandishing a bottle of port,
his pockets bulging with comic props.

Well, here is an unusual Georgian celebration but a congenial one. As part of the professionalization of many industrial and service occupations,1 the ancient trade of clowning in the eighteenth century came into its own. With population and urban growth, the number of theatres and circuses across Britain also multiplied. They provided evening and holiday entertainments for populations without TVs and radios, let alone without mobile phones and social media.

One who made his name as dancer, actor, comedian and all-round entertainer was Joseph Grimaldi.2 In 1778, he was born in London into an acting family, of Italian ancestry. He began performing as a child. And he threw himself into his roles with great physical energy, getting a number of injuries which took their toll in his later years.

The part that he made especially his own was the clown in the English Harlequinade, which was a theatrical burlesque upon the story of Harlequin and Columbine. Grimaldi was so successful and popular that other clowns were named after him as ‘Joey’. His trademark ‘whiteface’ also became much copied by his fellow artistes.

Grimaldi had the confidence, above all, to develop the art of comic interaction with his audiences. One of his famous catch-phrases was: ‘Well, here we are again’. Remarks of that sort indicated to his audiences that it was ok to sit back and be amused. Backchat augmented the collective sense of community and familiarity. It did not free the clown from the obligation to be funny. But it helped by getting audiences into a good mood – and into a state of expectation. Grimaldi’s clown mask and costume thus gave him a head start.

Nonetheless, there was a certain pressure in performing regularly and being always expected to provoke laughter. Grimaldi, who constantly played the London theatres and also toured extensively, was caught in an all-consuming professional role, calling upon both intense physical agility and a keen sense of social satire. He fused traditional slapstick with an urban knowingness and irreverence. It was a demanding combination; and it was not surprising that, from time to time, Grimaldi fell out with theatre producers – and eventually with his own family. He retired from the stage, reluctantly, in 1823 (in his mid-forties), although he returned for occasional benefit performances. In his last years, he was often depressed, physically ailing, and short of money.

Yet Grimaldi on stage epitomised the joy of unbridled laughter. He became the ‘quintessential’ clown. A sort of secular patron-saint of the role. By the mid-nineteenth century, his comic qualities had become almost proverbial. Oldsters would shake their heads and say: Ah! You should have seen Grimaldi!’

Professional clowns who followed in his footsteps were glad to have such a sparkling role model. In Islington, a small park bearing his name is located just off the Pentonville Road. It lies in the former burial grounds of an Anglican Chapel, where Grimaldi is buried. A new public artwork there is dedicated to him and to Charles Dibdin (1768-1833), the dramatist and theatrical proprietor.

Moreover – and here is the February link – on the first Sunday in February each year an Annual Clowns Service is held in Holy Trinity Church, Hackney, East London. The event has been held annually since the mid-1940s. And it is attended by hundreds of clowns, all in full costume.

What a tribute to the power of memory, to the joy of shared laughter, and to the impact of a pioneering life. Today, there are many brilliant comedians – on stages, in circuses, in print, and on all forms of social media. All praiseworthy, some truly hilarious! Ah! [but] you should have seen Grimaldi!’

ENDNOTES:

1 For context, see P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995).

2 H.D. Miles, The Life of Joseph Grimaldi, With Anecdotes of his Contemporaries (1838; and later reprints); A.M. Stott, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian (Edinburgh, 2010).

 

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MONTHLY BLOG 133, A YEAR OF GEORGIAN CELEBRATIONS – 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2022)

To celebrate the imminent publication of my book on The Georgians 1, my next set of BLOGs commemorates significant Georgian milestone dates: one for every month of the year.2 No problem for January. It must be Burns Night: Tuesday January 25th.

The hero is Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns, the evocative Scottish poet and song-writer (1759-96).3 He fully deserves celebration. Not least for writing the world’s most sung song, Auld Lang Syne, which hymns the poignancy of partings and of affectionate remembrance.4
Rituals at Burns Night suppers include the ceremonious arrival of a special dish of haggis. It contains meat offal (heart, liver, lungs), minced and cooked in a special bag with fillings of oatmeal, onions, suet, and seasoning.5 The degree of ceremony adopted remains a matter of choice. But the grandest ritual sees a Scottish piper in full regalia, playing in a procession, in which the dish of haggis is proudly paraded. It’s then eaten, washed down with Scottish whisky. (These days, too, vegetarian and non-alcoholic alternatives are available).

Annual meetings in Burns’ honour began among his friends, from 1801 onwards – only five years after his death. Other convivial groups began to do the same. Within ten years, a critic denounced the spread of the custom. In 1811, he detected a positive ‘Burnomania’.6 What term would he have to invent in 2022, when there are at least 200+ Burns Clubs globally? In 1885, these were organised into the Robert Burns World Federation (RBWF): its motto ‘Educate – Celebrate – Promote’.7

Clearly, the ‘mania’ has become settled and institutionalised. And it shows no sign of flagging. All the organised Societies host their own Burns Night suppers. But there are, in addition, many gatherings, which are spontaneous and ad hoc local initiatives. Thus the estimated figure of some 2,500 Burns suppers world-wide in January 2021 was probably too low. Meanwhile, an amiable venture from Glasgow University’s Centre for Burns Studies encourages revellers everywhere to share their memories, via an interactive Map.8

What is Burns’ special gift that generates such enthusiasm and loyalty? One component is undoubtedly Scottish national pride in his achievements. The strength of that cultural link should not be underestimated.9 And the Scottish diaspora over the centuries has taken Burns admirers world-wide. Yet it is completely wrong to assume that people from other nations don’t appreciate his work, even if they may need coaching in some of his less easily understood dialect usages. Indeed, the fact that many of his poems are known firstly as songs makes them easily memorable – the heartfelt musical meaning overriding any obscure terms.

Burns is thus a poet and song-writer for all times and peoples. His special gift consists in conveying richly complex thoughts in language of piercing clarity. He is simple but not trite. Loving but not soppy. When he is wryly melancholic, he is not bitter.

Who can resist raising a glass each year to the author of sentiments like ‘My love is like a red, red rose’; ‘A man’s a man, for a’ that!’ ‘O would some power the giftie gie us,/ To see ourselves as others see us’; ‘Man’s inhumanity to man/ Makes countless thousands mourn!’; and yet ‘We’ll drink a cup of kindness yet/ For the sake of Auld Lang Syne’.

All that, and the tribute taps into a tradition that now dates over 200 years. Burns was a Georgian radical who thought that people should be judged on their merits, not by their birth or titles. And his own merit is as radiant today as ever.

ENDNOTES:

1 P.J. Corfield. The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of Eighteenth-Century Britain (Yale UP., London, 2022), pp. 470: publication date 22 January 2022.

2 Ibid., pp. 389-91.

3 The first biography was published soon after his death by R.H. Heron, A Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1797); a relatively recent one is by R. Crawford, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography (2011).

4 [M.J. Grant], Auld Lang Syne: A Song and its Culture (Cambridge, Open Book publication, 2021).

5 Affectionate references to this quintessentially Scottish dish go back to Burns’ poetic address To a Haggis (1786), in T. Burke (ed.), The Collected Poems of Robert Burns (Ware, Herts, 2008), pp. 133-4, setting a trend for familiar commemorations, with successors like W. Foolie, The Scots Haggis [in verse] (Edinburgh, 1821); and D. Webster, The Scotch Haggis: Consisting of Anecdotes and Jests, Curious and Rare Articles of Literature …  (Edinburgh, 1822).

6 W. Peebles, Burnomania: The Celebrity of Robert Burns Considered … (Edinburgh, 1811).

7 Consult website http://www.rbwf.org.uk (accessed 10 Jan. 2022).

8 Report in https://www.gla.ac.uk/news/archiveofnews/2021/january/headline_769448_en.html (accessed 1o January 2022). The map will eventually be featured on https://www.scotland.org/burns.

9 C.A. Whatley, Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People (Edinburgh, 2016); C.E. Andrews, The Genius of Scotland: The Cultural Production of Robert Burns, 1785-1734 (Leiden, 2015).

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MONTHLY BLOG 132, IS TEACHING SEXY?

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Fig.1 Symbol for Infinity,
referencing the infinite unknown …
Image from Wikimedia Commons (2021)

It’s the author and playwright Alan Bennett who says that teaching is sexy. And, before the massed ranks of educationalists protest instead that their work is exhausting and under-paid, let’s clarify Bennett’s precise formulation. In The History Boys (2004), one of his fictional school-teachers states firmly that: ‘The transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act’.1

Of course, there are immediate qualifications to be made. Not all words voiced on stage can be taken as representing the playwright’s deep beliefs. Just as well, for otherwise it would be impossible to write a play about conflicting ideas and contested ideologies.

Nonetheless, The History Boys is infused with tenderness for adolescent boys on the verge of manhood. And the play is conspicuously sympathetic to close teacher engagement with the charms of youth.

So Bennett’s proposition stands, if not as his ultimate personal credo, then as a viewpoint worthy of serious consideration. And, by way of context, it may be noted that, in the early 1960s, the young Alan Bennett was himself briefly an apprentice History don at Magdalen College, Oxford.

First-hand testimony from friends, who had the benefit of his tuition,2 confirms that Bennett was an excellent tutor. He was not only knowledgeable and sagacious, but also very good at inducting baffled student beginners into the required skills for self-directed study. Some came from schools where they relied for information upon ‘teachers’ notes’. Such students were astounded to be given a booklist of 20+ massive tomes and told cheerfully to return in a week with an original essay. Bennett was good at demystification, without being patronising. And, if he was gaining erotic satisfaction from these pedagogic exchanges, he gave no outward intimation of any such state of affairs.

Yet it is still worth asking: is the transmission of knowledge an erotic act? Here this discussion rejects entirely all sexual exploitation of students by teachers. At any and every stage in the educational system, such behaviour is illegal and immoral – and almost invariably damaging to the exploited young. It may be noted, too, that, in The History Boys, the school-master Hector’s explanation of his fondling of young boys’ genitalia as part of the eros of transmitting knowledge, as in the Renaissance, is robustly rebuked by the head-master: ‘Fuck the Renaissance’.

But is there a deeper point to explore about the pleasures of educational exchanges? Something that is not directly sexual. Nor even particularly sensual.

Yes, there is. Indeed, there are genuine intellectual pleasures to be gained from the life of the mind, as well as of the body. The best moments of transmitting and debating ideas with others are exhilarating. It’s exciting to push collectively at the boundaries of knowledge, which reach to infinity. It engenders a genuine electric buzz of the mind. Such excitements are particularly associated with advanced level teaching; but they can occur in any context of intellectual breakthrough. Out of uncertainty into the light: wow!

No special terms comes to mind to acknowledge this joyous and far from everyday experience. Something that is not directly ‘sexy’ or ‘erotic’. But, as they say, something else.

Greek terms offer some range. It is understood that Eros, the god of love, comes in many forms. His/her manifestations are protean. So the lofty Greek agapé means a god-like, universal, and unconditional love. And there is another term, which falls between agapé and eros. It refers to deep, nurturing, supportive and non-sexualised friendship, known as philia. That’s a very pleasant thing to give and to receive.

However, good friendship is not really the same as the intense stimulus of shared intellectual endeavour. Dictionaries of synonyms offer variants such as ‘mental stimulation’ or ‘food for thought’.

All of those are nice. Yet those terms are a bit tame. So let’s simply say that there is a positive intellectual buzz to be derived from the shared transmission of knowledge.

Is the experience erotic? No. Does it happen in every teaching context? No. Does it happen often enough to add zest to the educational process? Yes. Is the intellectual buzz intensely joyous? Yes. It’s generating real intellectual electricity, with its own power and light.

ENDNOTES:

1 A. Bennett, The History Boys (2004), p. 53.

2 Those friends include my life partner, Tony Belton, who studied History at Magdalen College between 1961-64.

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MONTHLY BLOG 131, REMEMBERING ADRIAN AGAIN

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Adrian Corfield,
on the South Coast seafront,
not long before his death from lymphoma at the age of forty-four.

Thinking about ‘Being Penelope’ (BLOG/130 October 2021) got me remembering – again – my next brother Adrian (1946-90). We were the oldest two of a close-knit tribe of six siblings. I’ve web-posted my obituary of him already.1 So I am not planning to repeat myself. Instead I am just distilling my thoughts on how bereavement feels, thirty-one years later.

Thoughts of Adrian are woven into my life. They don’t need to come at special moments. He was a happy person, one might say happy-go-lucky. So my memories are usually joyous ones. His smiling face is like a benison.

One fun thing, when we were kids, was our laughing game. It was an enjoyable way of passing the time, if we were confined to home by bad weather (say) on a dank November afternoon. One sibling would be selected to start laughing. The rest were enjoined to keep their faces straight. The test was to see how long the non-laughers could resist. Adrian was especially good at giving a contagious chuckle and making funny faces. Soon we would all be laughing uncontrollably. And if a parent popped in to ask: ‘What’s the joke, kids?’ our glee was redoubled. It was not a game which we played all the time. But it was a great reserve for raising everyone’s spirits on a gloomy afternoon. And shared laughter is very bonding.

Remembering an emotionally close sibling also reminds me of the almost instinctive bonds between children brought up together from the earliest age. There are many people in life to whom I feel warm links. Yet those are all, to a greater or lesser extent, chosen and cultivated during my lifetime. My bond with Adrian was not something that I chose. It just happened, because we were very close in age within an emotionally tightly-knit household. I would not say that I understood all of Adrian’s thoughts, especially as we got older and our daily lives diverged. Yet, when young, I effortlessly understood his emotions, moods and reactions, just as he understood mine. Quite probably twins who are close and are brought up together feel this form of identification even more strongly.

Consequently, when Adrian died, I felt that an entire branch of my specialist knowledge was nullified.  It was a bit like losing an arm or a leg. It’s a shock that always remains a shock. Plenty of other people know me tolerably well, as I know them tolerably well. But no-one now understands my reactions in the instinctive way that Adrian did. It’s not a matter that I go round bewailing. In some ways, it’s quite nice to maintain my adult mystery. Yet it’s still a startling experience, to lose someone who was so close. (And talking with others who have lost siblings, I know that shocked feeling is quite common).

Lastly, as life continues, I am increasingly conscious of one big issue which concerned Adrian greatly. He was a biologist; and, in the 1980s, was already lecturing his friends and family on the importance of maintaining global biodiversity. How right he was; and is!

Today, he would be beside himself with anxiety about climate change. As the urgency of the issue escalates, he would be one of the very many calling for immediate action to halt the process or at least to coordinate global attempts at alleviation. Adrian was not a political joiner. So he never became a member of the Greens, though that was the logic of his position. Today, I am sure that he would be marching with the recent crowds of protestors in London (as in many other international capitals) against the role of the big banks in funding fossil fuel extractions.

Would the failure of the world’s political leaders to undertake serious action during the last thirty years alarm him? Greatly. Would it dent his chronic optimism? Perhaps somewhat, though he would doubtless rally to say that the global emergency will finally force everyone, not least political leaders, to take urgent action. `

And what else? He would echo the brilliantly succinct warning from Greta Thunberg: ‘There is no planet-B’.

ENDNOTES:

1 PJC, ‘Remembering Adrian Corfield (1946-90)’, in https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/PDFs/7.4.3-Corfield-Adrian-Memories.pdf. With my siblings, we organise an annual walk in his honour on the majestic outcrop of Beachy Head, near Eastbourne: views are magnificent and larks sing high above.

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MONTHLY BLOG 130, MEANINGS OF BEING PENELOPE

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Fig.1 A swatch of weaving,
illustrating the metaphor for History as ‘Penelope’s Web’
being constantly woven and unwoven by Penelope in Greek myth.

It’s a great name, Penelope. English. Greek. And very international. Recognised everywhere. Can be used in long majestic form. Or abbreviated into Penny, Pen, or P. It’s not too commonly used. Yet it’s very far from unknown, either.

In Greek myth, the foundational Penelope is the wife of the travelling Odysseus (Ulysses). She remains at home, weaving and waiting. And rejecting the many suitors for her hand. So the name has connotations of a woman of sexy desirability, who has great patience and perseverance while sticking at her own work, allied to a good knowledge of her own mind, and a degree of cunning in eventually getting what she wants. For me, a most attractive mix.

Perhaps British wives, waiting at home for their husbands to return from the Second World War, had visions of themselves as Penelope? Certainly a considerable number of baby daughters were then given that name. For instance, in 1940 the celebrated actor Penelope Keith was born in Sutton, to the wife of a serving army officer; and in 1946 her fellow actor, the admirable Penelope Wilton, was born in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Whereas the name has become comparatively less common since then. The much-lauded Spanish film actor Penelope Cruz (b.1974) is a notable exception. And, of course, there are others, especially in Greece. Nonetheless, when I meet fellow Penelopes these days, there is a strong chance that we will all be post-WW2 baby boomers.

Interestingly, in Britain after the First World War, numerous baby girls were named ‘Irene’ – meaning peace. My mother (b.1919) was one of them. So it obviously seemed natural to her, after yet another grinding war, to reach for an expressive Greek name. During the fighting, she worked on the home front, deciphering captured letters for Military Intelligence, and dodging incendiary bombs on London. But her memories were chiefly of the anxiety of waiting for my father to return from active service in North Africa and Italy. So Penelope!

As a youngster, I was invariably known as Penny – and was happy enough to be teased about turning up like a ‘bad penny’; or, when I was naughty, being called ‘penny dreadful’. Such usages are broadly affectionate. And, with a long name in reserve, I never felt purely defined by the diminutive form.

Moreover, as I began to teach and then to publish, I realised the great advantage of having a public persona, which I can use alongside my private identity. These days I use Penelope daily – and some people address me only by that name. I positively enjoy it, though I would not have done when younger.

Furthermore, there is one metaphorical usage, which I do especially relish. The term ‘Penelope’s web’ refers originally to the shroud that the mythic Penelope weaves daily and unpicks secretly by night – thereby delaying a decision as to which of her suitors to choose. (They were not very bright and failed to see through her ruse, which she sustained for years). Penelope’s web can therefore simply refer to a major work which is always in progress and never done. (Ouch! Too many authors know that syndrome). Yet it is also used metaphorically for global history. That is a colossal work, which is always in progress, always being unpicked by critical historians, and then rewoven by others. As one of that tribe, I am proud to contribute to Penelope’s web.

By the way, I don’t feel any proprietorial interest over any other aspects of the mythology, though I admire both the academic deliberations1 and the contemporary retellings.2 Did Penelope secretly have sex with all 108 of the faithful suitors, giving birth to an illegitimate son Pan? (as some versions suggest). I don’t know and don’t mind one way or the other. Did Penelope look on with blood-thirsty glee when Odysseus/Ulysses returned and slaughtered all the importunate suitors and her twelve loyal handmaids as well?3 I never knew about such details as a child, so had no idea that there were moral complexities in the story (as in global history, of course). To me, Penelope was/is simply a name of serenity and potency.

But I did discover, with time, one complexity of my own. From childhood, I was trained to write my short name as ‘Pene’: literally one half of Penelope. I view ‘Penny’ as a close variant, but not actually referring to me. However, then I met some Spaniards. They were highly excited to meet a woman named ‘Penis’. For a while, I simply laughed. After all, plenty of men manage with the penile nick-names: ‘Dick’, ‘John Thomas, or ‘Johnson’, without exciting wild mirth. However, in my case the cross-gender dimension seemed to be too much. Soon I got bored with the kerfuffle, especially as my range of international contacts grew. Now I try to keep ‘Pene’ strictly for use between very old friends and family. I sign emails with the initial: P. And to the wider world, I’m very happily known as Penelope – a lovely Greek name with hidden depths.

ENDNOTES:

1 See e.g. M.A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton, NJ, 1991); M. Janda, Odysseus und Penelope: Mythos und Namen (Innsbruck, 2015).

2 See esp. M. Atwood, The Penelopiad (2007).

3 Christopher Rush’s novel Penelope’s Web (Edinburgh, 2015) confronts the dramas and moral dilemmas both of her husband’s twenty-year absence and of his homecoming.

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MONTHLY BLOG 129, The Surprising Consequences of Learning to Float-and-Kick Simultaneously

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Floating © Clipart 2021.

Having been an enthusiastic swimmer all my life, it was a shock to be told casually by a friendly swimming-pool attendant that I was squandering my efforts by swimming wrongly. That is, I was using my arms for propulsion and merely wiggling my feet as rudders to improve direction. I was sceptical. But I accepted the challenge to swim a length of the pool, holding onto a float, and using nothing but my legs.

It was mortifying. I could hardly move. In addition, I immediately realised that the small and apparently tranquil leisure-pool has quite strong currents. These are caused by the swirl of the waters that are constantly pumped in to keep the ambience clean and fresh. My kicking was so feeble that the float – or rather the currents – were taking charge.

Turning to my pool-side mentor, I wondered what to do. ‘Kick harder’, she replied. Stung, I followed her advice. But the outcome was still mortifying. I could just about surmount the currents in the pool’s centre but, once I got to the edges, where the tides scour with special force, I was stuck again. It was objectively funny to be very close to the finishing tape, kicking away lustily, but unable to get to the edge. But, subjectively, I was not amused.

Well, I went back to basics. In the next two months, I sorted out firstly how best to breathe steadily on the float, instead of alternatively kicking and breathing. I then reviewed my leg movements and decided upon a more piston-like action. It took some time to get it; but it began to work. I had to use the entire leg, rather than just wiggling my toes. I knew that something radical was happening when I got spasms in my lower back, as torpid muscles were suddenly kicked into action after literally decades of under-use.

Basically, it seems that, not only had I been swimming weakly but I was also walking with only half-leg power. I’d been sort-of-gliding, holding my torso still and using only my calf muscles. Upon reflection, I realised that this state of affairs could be traced back to a serious fall which I had at the age of seventeen. In fact, it began as a joyous jump on a moonlit summer evening in Italy. I leapt from a high seaside promenade down onto the sandy beach. But I’d seriously miscalculated. (I blame the moonlight). The fall was uncontrolled, ending with great force. Fortunately no bones were broken. I got up, after recovering my breath, and continued strolling under the stars, with a group of teenager friends, who responded with gentle indifference.

In fact, however, I’d dislodged my pelvis. There was nothing to see; and the harmful effects on my knees became apparent only years later. Various osteopaths gradually managed to improve matters. Yet it was only when I persevered for weeks at hearty kicking with both legs, while buoyed in water, that things finally righted themselves. It was a shock, but a most agreeable one.

And about time too! My kicking with the float is still improving. My ordinary swimming has become stronger, with the aid of proper leg power. And I now walk briskly, swinging my hips, lifting my feet, and singing lustily as I go. Leaping from a high promenade felt (briefly) like flying. Yet getting old bones back into their proper alignment feels infinitely more euphoric.

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MONTHLY BLOG 128, Appreciating Northumberland and seeking the best adjective to describe its scenic beauties.

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Fig. 128.1 Silhouette Hedgehog
© https://flyclipart.com (2021)

A wonderful short trip to Northumberland yielded five great pleasures, headed by a night-sighting of a live hedgehog. Something that I personally have not witnessed for very many decades. Reassuringly, the hedgehog looked exactly as I expected it to look. It did not like our probing torch-light, so we kept the sighting brief. But it was enough to show me that my childhood memories were entirely accurate. A hedgehog is a hedgehog is a hedgehog. So it should be. But good to have personal confirmation. All admirers of the elusive, charming, and now habitat-threatened animal should join the British Hedgehog Protection Society (https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk)!

The second great pleasure in Northumberland was to breathe clean, fresh air. As a Londoner, I enjoy living on a small hill, because the hill-top air is at least fresher than the fumes of the low-lying Thames basin. Yet a few lung-fulls of air in Northumberland made me realise that I’d been relatively kidding myself. Everywhere in London is polluted. Come on, politicians: get to grips with this issue. We know that clean air is needed for health, both mental and physical – especially of growing children. Come on, voters, pressurise the politicians to take action. And let’s send all those who oppose the clean-up (and their children) to breathe some real air in Northumberland, in order to experience the difference and to learn that there’s a better way.

Thirdly, then, the coast-line of Northumberland is something special. We spent some time in seeking the perfect adjective to describe its qualities. It’s visually very attractive. Yet ‘pretty’ does not do justice to its grandeur. Nor, on the other hand, is the over-used adjective ‘awesome’ really right. Even though there is much to strike awe into viewers, much of the coast-line is too low and secretive to provide the sort of shock and awe associated with huge mountains and towering cliffs. Certainly, the Northumberland coast is striking. But many things are that. Eventually, I settled for ‘grandly beautiful’ or perhaps ‘beautifully grand’. Some combination of ‘stunning’; ‘wild’; ‘magnificent’ would do as well. The kittiwakes nesting on the basalt rocks provided a squawking chorus of approval. And the castles, some ruined, added majesty and grand views.

By the way, when walking out on one low headland, we bumped unexpectedly into two old friends from Battersea – so other Londoners have already got the message. The lengthy coastal walk is rightly popular; and we plan to come back another time to talk some more.

Fourthly, the small market and seaside towns in Northumberland are attractive and joyous places. They are not immune to today’s common urban pressures. There are some closed shops and some struggling pubs. There are also some trafficked streets in the centres which could be pedestrianised with benefit. Yet their scale makes them highly attractive places to live and to visit. And the prevailing mellow sandstone stonework adds a distinctive visual charm.

Alnwick is one leading example. It has obvious and important places to see – like the imposing Castle, with an impressive art display and beautiful grounds. It has a collective ensemble of town-centre buildings, including the central market place, the Town Hall, a couple of medieval town gates, and a slightly over-sized nineteenth-century Assembly Rooms, all of which deserve a pottering visit. And there are unexpected venues. Like the nineteenth-century railway station converted into the gorgeous Barter Books emporium, which serves a great breakfast and, more importantly, has a truly astonishing array of   fiction and non-fiction on its groaning shelves – enough to fill a huge Victorian engine shed, which gives an idea of its scale. And there are little secrets to spot across town: the fountains, known in Northumbrian dialect as ‘pants’ (a usage dating back at least to 1661 but whose origin remains unexplained); the town seats, all devised in different designs; and, round a quiet corner, brandishing a sword manfully, a 14-foot high bronze statue to Henry Percy, better known as Harry Hotspur (c.1364-1403). This tribute, unveiled in 2010, salutes the fighting spirit of the celebrated hero – and also the links between Alnwick and the Percy family, who continue to reside in Alnwick Castle.

So what was the fifth Northumbrian thing of note? The huge skies – which can, of course, be seen elsewhere – and, especially, their utter darkness at night. Unfortunately, during our short visit, the weather was continually cloudy and overcast. Our plan to visit Kielder Park was put on hold for another time. Nonetheless, Northumberland remains known for the peerless quality of its dark skies – and those at Kielder are internationally renowned (see https://www.visitkielder.com). Its dark skies zone covers almost 580 square miles; and in 2013 was awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark-Sky Association (https://www.darksky.org). That accolade ranks Northumberland with only a few competitors, world-wide. It deserves applause from all who seek to combat the disorientating effects (on humans and wildlife alike) of excess light pollution.

Kielder should become the destination of choice for all the millions of Brits who have never really experienced the deep wonder of a truly dark sky. Humans first used the stars to learn to navigate and to count the passing of time. Let everyone enjoy that seminal experience, which is genuinely awe-inspiring. So it follows too: let’s control technology; curb light pollution; and protect life properly in all its forms.

In the meantime, visit Northumberland for real wildlife; grandly beautiful coast; fresh air; intriguing towns; and huge dark skies, where starlight quietly puts Planet Earth into its cosmic context.

(*) This BLOG is dedicated to the great hospitality and unshakeable good cheer of our Northumberland hosts.

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