Last evening, on BBC4, Malcolm caught Ian Hislop’s Changing of the Bard:
an amused look at one of the most peculiar offices in the British establishment, that of Poet Laureate. Its 341-year history produces a gloriously eccentric picture of who we are, how we are ruled, what we want to say about ourselves and just how hard it is to do that in verse.
To Malcolm’s slight annoyance (he is no fan of Hislop’s public-school attitudes and humour) the programme was not bad. Hislop’s ultra-irony and bouncing enthusiasms for once worked effortlessly. He expressed measured enthusiasm for Malcolm’s own favourites (Tennyson and Bridges, Ted Hughes); and revealed the backstairs negotiation between politicians and Palace over Bridges’ successor. He extracted from the National Archives a juicy exchange with someone (a Mr Duff, no less) in Ramsay MacDonald’s office submitting a short list, and King George’s man shooting them (Yeats, Kipling included) all down, until Masefield was left standing.
Cue a neat piece of class consciousness.
The programme was a build-up to the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the new Poet Laureate. Since this is hardly news, it suggests Malcolm was watching a repeat.
Hislop could not resist rubbing in the difference Duffy is to her predecessors in the post: a woman, openly ambiguous about her sexuality, a lefty, with an Irish-Scots background transplanted to Stafford:
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.
Then, today, the Guardian has a neat example of Duffy. Not her outstanding best, but worth the trip:
Five miles up the hush and shush of ash,
Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate -
I could write my childhood there.
Selfish to sit in this garden, listening to the past
(A gentleman bee wooing its flower, a lawnmower)
When the grounded planes mean ruined plans,
Holidays on hold, sore absences at weddings, funerals … wingless commerce.
But Britain’s birds sing in this spring
From Inverness to Liverpool, from Crieff to Cardiff,
Oxford, Londontown, Land’s End to John O’ Groats.
The music’s silent summons,
That Shakespeare heard and Edward Thomas and, briefly, us.
Now, there’s enough there to keep us all going for a while. How many cultural ignoramuses need reminding of the significance of Edward Thomas, in that last line? It is a magical connection, which, for Malcolm, makes the whole thing:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Trains coming down the Evenlode Valley on the Cotswold Line no longer stop at Adlestrop. The station was closed in the mid-’60s. Even the memorial to Thomas’s poem, and the GWR seat to which it was fixed, (see right) now resides —or did at Malcolm’s last count—in a bus shelter. Before the railway, Jane Austen came visiting her mother’s cousin, the Rev. Thomas Leigh, at Adlestop House, then the local vicarage. Some suggest that Adlestrop is an original for Mansfield Park.
Many years ago, on a Western Region steam train, adolescent Malcolm also stopped at Adlestrop.
It was a bright, warm, English early-summer’s day. In homage, Malcolm lowered the window on one its leather strap to look out. The engine leaked steam. There was a bird, Malcolm hopes, at this distance in time, a blackbird, singing.