Week 115: ‘Honour is Purchased By the Deeds We Do’

WP_20150803_16_37_18_ProOur dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen.  His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life.  While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that.  This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here.  Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something.  Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.

So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?

Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler.  Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of  Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’.   Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings.  The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times).  And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please).  It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports.  Oh, and the girls hang g and laround in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and  —  Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour —  Lancelot).

All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare.  William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town.  But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York.  A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’.  When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):

QUEEN MARGARET

Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;

DUCHESS OF YORK

I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.

QUEEN MARGARET

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.

The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you.  Sorry).

But to end on a bright note.  The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post.  Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived.   To a truly great actress, congratulations.Dame Penelope Wilton

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Week 26: Books for a Train Journey

Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Trains haven’t actually sounded like that for ages, or possibly for ever, but they do when we imagine them: which is all my dear readers in the benighted and line-less West Country can do at present.  So, time to curl up with a good book and transport ourselves back to a golden age of travel.‘Northumberland Coast’, BR (NER) poster, 1948-1965.

Almost as much as I like the fact that time only had to shape up and get accurate across Britain when the railways were invented (timetables meant that one couldn’t really say, ‘well, the train from London will be along at half past two.  Ish’: although of course as it turned out, 2.30-ish would be a utopian paradise of prompt arrival compared to the sadly current ‘well, the train from London should pitch up some time in the next six months when we’ve finished thinking about improving the line’) – almost as much as that, I like the impact that the railway had on fiction.  While I treasure a letter from my great-great-great grandfather to his beloved, casually and really rather thrillingly letting her know that he was planning to drive down for the weekend, in reality what he was showing off about (this was 1809) was that he was a young man about town with a gig, and his nipping off to darkest Berkshire was going to take quite a chunk of the weekend – up to and including the following Wednesday, in fact, the idea of the weekend being at least as much in its infancy as was the steam engine – and rather more planning than invading France.  His was the world of Jane Austen, who was only nine years his senior: a world of Colonel Brandon rushing off  hither and yon on horseback (which, now I think about it, he does have a bit of a tendency to do) and frightful aunts pitching up in carriages.  A single generation later, and the train had arrived in fiction.

Perhaps its single most dramatic effect was, as in life, to bring people together.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (not, I should add, the Hardy to embark upon if you’re on your own and feeling a bit low: it’s not the cheeriest book ever written) relies heavily upon the Great Western Railway to bring its tragic characters together and, this being Hardy, to tear them apart.  Dickens was also on the despondent side when it came  to trains, long before he was himself involved in a ghastly railway accident  – and the moral of that particular story, dearest reader, is do not travel with someone you would be embarrassed to be in an accident with – and trains figure in Dombey and Son entirely as agents of disaster.   Trains, and of course stations, figure quite prominently in the life and work of Tolstoy, too: not only does a train provide a most useful plot device in Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy himself had a tendency to flit about the vastness of Russia by locomotive and even managed a highly theatrical death-scene at a railway station which you can’t help suspecting the master story-teller must have hugely enjoyed.

We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

But where train travel really seems to come into its own is in crime fiction.  We begin with Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, who swoops down to solve the mystery of The Moonstone thanks to the speed and reliability of the railways.  Where Wilkie Collins (a good friend of Dickens, incidentally) led, Conan Doyle was happy to follow, and Sherlock Holmes constantly gads about the place by train (and let’s not talk about errors in Tube journeys or whatever it was that made some of the more concrete watchers of BBC’s jolly enjoyable Sherlock get themselves into a flutter).  Holmes and Watson, who once would have taken several days and a series of stage coaches to get anywhere, spend most of the canon whooshing off from London to further-flung parts of England (although, sadly, they missed out on the glorious North-East – no doubt a tribute to the low crime rates in this part of the world).  By the twentieth century, a really avid reader might well start to feel a trifle uneasy about hopping onto a train lest the worst befall her.  The most pessimistic about your chances of getting through a journey unscathed is of course Agatha Christie.  What with The 4.50 from Paddington, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a wonder we don’t all catch the bus.  But think what interestingly deranged people we would miss out on meeting: surely no-one is immune to reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train without murmuring ‘what fun’?  And there is always the chance of romance, although do not be bamboozled by the truly splendid Hitchcock film of The Thirty Nine Steps to expect love to blossom on the Flying Scotsman: Richard Hannay is indeed at least as much a man-on-a-train as a man-on-the-run, but he is never diverted by mere females from single-handedly saving Britain’s secrets in 1914.

trainTalking of desperate heroes fleeing their pursuers, all this talk of trains lets us realise that Kenneth Grahame got there first: Mr Toad, among his many achievements, must figure as one of the very earliest men – well, alright, toads, but you know what I mean – on the run in literature, even if his disguise as a washer-woman is somewhat less suave than Hannay’s.  Children’s books abound with trains and we should probably acknowledge the Reverend Awdry’s  Thomas the Tank Engine, although for me they were always a bit too trainspotty (in the sense of appealing to the inner anorak rather than the inner heroin-user from Leith).  No, let’s end by celebrating that power of the railway to offer new hope.  Michael Bond – another Reverend – did a gentle interest in trains supersede the botany and palaeontology of their Victorian precursors? – recognised that a railway station might be a very possible place for different worlds to collide, and so a small bear from darkest Peru became Paddington and lived happily ever after.  And, greatest of all (and I defy you to watch Jenny Agutter at the end of the perfectly lovely film without sobbing your socks off), who can forget Bobbie, running down the station platform with the heart-breaking cry, ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’