Sunday, 26 August 2012

Prince Harry and Prince Hal

             ‘A little touch of Harry in the night’
             (Henry V, Act 4, Prologue)

Prince Harry, whose assets have been stripped bare by The Sun and others this week, continues a long and even distinguished tradition of royal males behaving badly.  It's a lineage stretching back at least to Henry V and his friendship with Falstaff, Mistress Quickly et al.

It’s notable that Shakespeare called him Hal when he was being laddish, but ‘Prince’ at other times, making it quite clear meanwhile that Henry knew what he was up to when spending time in the stews of Eastcheap (“I know you all, and will awhile / Uphold the unyok’d humour of your idleness”). By contrast, I’m not sure Captain Harry Wales is quite sure where he stands. When he was introduced at the Closing Ceremony of the Olympics as ‘Le Prince Henri de Wales’, he looked baffled for a moment: ‘Is that me they’re talking about?  Bafflement, indeed, seems to be poor Harry’s fixed expression in the aftermath of his game of strip billiards in Las Vegas. “The Prince is stunned,” announced the Daily Mail, though it wasn’t clear from the sentence whether the reporter was referring to Prince Harry, or his brother or his dad – all three, probably.

Prince Harry is third in line to the throne, which is one reason The Sun assures us that it’s in the public interest to publish photographs of him cannoning off the cushion (the idiosyncratic vocabulary of billiards unexpectedly coming back into fashion). Billiards, indeed, was what his great great great uncle, Prince Albert Edward, Duke of Clarence, used to play. Queen Victoria’s grandson, he was second in line to the throne and would indeed have succeeded had he not died in 1892, leaving his brother to become, in due time, George V. 

Poor Clarence was not, by all accounts, bright. Described by his tutor as having a mind ‘abnormally dormant’, he apparently got into all sorts of scrapes which had to be hushed up. It was thought he’d been embroiled in the Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, and in 1890 he suffered a prolonged period of ‘fever’ or ‘gout’ which gossip maintained must have been something nastier because none of the matrimonial engagements proposed for him at that time came to anything. Even after his death, a man called Clarence Haddon claimed to be Albert Edward’s illegitimate son, and actually published a book called My Uncle George V. No one took Haddon very seriously, but it was typical of Clarence that the gossip about his life and lifestyle never quite died down.

At least he had a devoted mother to treasure his memory. The Princess of Wales wanted a permanent memorial to him and, once she had become Queen Alexandra, commissioned a memorial stained glass window for the Ministers’ Staircase of Buckingham Palace. This life-size memorial, designed by John Lisle (chief designer at the Studios of Charles Eamer Kempe) depicts Albert Edward, Duke of Clarence, as St. George in full armour. You can see the window today, not in the Palace but in the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral. It was damaged  during the Blitz, and not replaced afterwards.

Clarence’s father, Edward VII (1901-1910), had himself enjoyed a colourful past before becoming king. Like his son, he had no particular academic leanings, though he is reported to have said, after his first encounter with Lily Langtree, “Vidi, vici, veni”. But by the time he ascended the throne he had become almost an elder statesman, and when he died he was warmly admired for having kept war in Europe at bay. A window in St. Mary’s Priory Church Monmouth ( from the later firm, C.E.Kempe & Co.) depicts him in full regalia, and carries the inscription Rex Pacificator. A statue in Montpellier, Cheltenham, shows him clad in Norfolk jacket and plus-fours protecting a waif-like child, and again describes him as ‘the Peacemaker’. Yet, as Shakespeare’s Archbishop of Canterbury says, ‘The courses of his youth promised it not.'

Henry V may offer our hapless Prince Harry promise of better times to come. Those courses of Hal’s youth to which the Archbishop refers sound strangely familiar:

… his addiction was to courses vain,
His companies unletter’d, rude, and shallow,
His hours fill’d up with riots, banquets, sports;
And never noted in him any study ….

But when finally he stepped out of his father’s shadow, everything turned out well:

                             … at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came,
And whipp’d th’offending Adam out of him;
Leaving his body as a Paradise,
T’envelope and contain celestial spirits. (Act 1 Sc.2)

The moral for Harry is clear: he should brush up his Shakespeare, take his cue from his famous forebear, forsake Sin City, abandon billiards, and from now on avoid enveloping anyone who is not an absolute angel – especially in the presence of ‘friends’ with smartphones.

Adrian Barlow

Illustrations: (i) The Duke of Clarence depicted as St. George; designed by John Lisle, and made by the Kempe Studios, 1905 (Ely Stained Glass Museum)
(ii) Edward VII (‘Rex Pacificator’); stained glass window by C.E. Kempe and Co in St. Mary’s Priory Church, Monmouth (Adrian Barlow)

Read reviews of my new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

On First Looking into Macfarlane’s 'Old Ways'

On one of the hottest days this summer, I am immersed in an account of walking across the Marlborough Downs in snow.There are two reasons for my immersion. First, I too have written about such a walk (A blog on the Og), so I am mentally comparing notes as I read. Second, the account comes from Robert Macfarlane’s new book, The Old Ways, which I have just bought after reading an exhilarating review in the TLS by Adam Thorpe. What follows is not a review (I only bought the book yesterday) but my own exhilarated first impressions of a book I already know I want to recommend to everyone in sight.

The Old Ways begins with a quotation from Emerson I have not come across before: ‘All things are engaged in writing their history … Not a foot steps into the snow, or along the ground, but prints in characters more or less lasting, a map of its march.’ Footprints and footpaths crisscross every page of this book. ‘Paths’, says Macfarlane, ‘are the habits of a landscape. They are acts of consensual making.’ His own footpaths, and the walks about which he writes, start at his front door in Cambridge, and take him all over the British Isles and to the far - and often far-from-safe - places of the world: Ramallah on the Palestinian West Bank, for instance, or the high mountains of Western Tibet, where his walking companion warns him, “If we’re lucky, it’ll be dry and bright and fearsomely cold. If we’re unlucky, it’ll be blizzarding and overcast and fearsomely cold.” It is certainly cold: Macfarlane’s trousers freeze. But the views and the companionship are well worth it. “Darshan!” he exclaims, as he gets his first view of  Minya Konka. (The book has an excellent, quirky, glossary which glosses Darshan as a Sanskrit word meaning ‘seeing, in the sense of beholding a divine vision’.)

Much about The Old Ways is quirky in the best sense: Macfarlane is masterly with words, making us see things in new ways. His companions in Tibet include Erik, who is ‘rigging-thin’, and Jatso, who ‘snored inspiringly’ for ten hours of night when the temperature was - 20°C. On another cold night, back in Cambridge, Macfarlane steals out of the house for a secret bike ride, but skids on the ice and has a nasty fall. His pride and his knees are badly bruised. No one could accuse him of being sentimental or self-pitying: ‘What a fool I’d been, biking like a dizzy vicar down the road, too full of the romance of the way.’

Perhaps ‘post-modern romantic’ is the description that fits him best. Here is his description of walking the Marlborough Downs under snow:

For those last short hours of daylight, we moved through a world drained of people and colour. Once a heron launched itself from low ground to our south, a foldaway construction of struts and canvas, snapping and locking itself into shape just in time to keep airborne, slowing time as it beat away northwards on curved wings.

I’m glad to have lived long enough to read such a description of a heron in flight.

It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Robert Macfarlane walks always in company with other writers. He quotes Edmund Blunden (“We have been increasingly on pilgrimage”) and follows Laurie Lee to Spain to explore the side tracks on the pilgrim way to Santiago. When I started to learn Spanish at school, we had an apricot-coloured textbook called Nos Ponemos en Camino, so this was the first sentence in Spanish I ever learned. The  camino looms large in The Old Ways. Macfarlane quotes what he calls ‘probably the best-known line in Spanish poetry’: Marchado’s  No hay camino, se hace camino al andar – there is no road, the road is made by walking’. This comes near the start of a fascinating digression – well, no, not a digression: all the sidetracks in this book turn out to be part of the main path – about ‘one of the most astonishing libraries in existence’, the collection of Miguel Angel Blanco in which every book is kept in its own special box and turns out to be itself both book and box. ‘Each of my books,’ Miguel tell him, ‘records an actual journey but also a camino interior, an interior path.’ It is a library of personal pilgrimage. After choosing three boxes as disturbing and prophetic as the caskets in The Merchant of Venice, Macfarlane concludes, ‘I felt somehow known by these boxes, this vast mute library, these books which I appeared to open but which actually opened me.’

Of all the poets who accompany him, however, the most important is Edward Thomas. The Old Ways is, in some ways, both a commentary and a biographical essay on the greatest walking poet of the twentieth century. It is thus a counterpoint to Matthew Hollis’s 2011 biography Now All Roads Lead to France. In his Acknowledgements, Macfarlane writes:

Matthew Hollis and I discovered that for three years we had been following similar paths back into Edward Thomas’s life, without ever quite meeting or realizing the other was around. Such footstepping and way-crossing came to seem wholly in keeping with our shared subject, and I remain grateful for Matthew’s generosity of spirit.

Adam Thorpe describes Macfarlane as a ‘writer-naturalist’, which he manifestly is. But he is also an academic at Cambridge, a Fellow of Emmanuel and a much-in-demand member of the English Faculty. I don’t think I have ever before read a book in which a virtuoso demonstration of close reading is hidden in the Acknowledgements (pp.411-2), but here you will find Macfarlane’s keen analysis of a passage about writing and re-writing from Henry James’ foreword to the New York edition of The Golden Bowl. He admires the way ‘James strikingly figures the original writer as a walker who has left tracks in the snow of the page, and the revising writer as a tracker or hunter, following the original print-trail.’

Robert Macfarlane is both walker and tracker, and in The Old Ways invites his readers to be walkers and trackers too. Even before I have finished it, I can’t wait to start re-reading this book.

Adrian Barlow

[Photo: the Marlborough Downs at Ogborne St. Andrew, January 2010

Read recent reviews of my book Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, (Lutterworth: 2012) here.