Archive for the ‘English Literature’ Category

I once had a flying friend who had been a secondary school English teacher for thirty years. He looked and was very disillusioned. He told me that when he had first become a teacher he had been full of enthusiasm and idealism. But years spent in an inner-city London comprehensive school trying to educate hordes of  unruly and ungrateful adolescent gits, had, when coupled with having to deal with the ever-changing demands of Whitehall education bureaucrats,  finally worn him down. It wasn’t a very uplifting tale.  

It’s unfortunately true that the efforts and commitment of countless individual teachers do tend to go unacknowledged and are often under-appreciated.

In another short article I mentioned the fact that so many of us have a story to tell of a particular teacher we had – a story of care and inspiration, a story of a good teacher. This is mine. It is the story of how one of my English teachers, a Mr Rawlinson (for that was his name), inspired in me a love of English literature and language that abides with me to this day.

Before getting to Mr Rawlinson, I can’t resist mentioning one of my earlier English teachers in the Grammar school I attended. I don’t remember his real name because we called him ‘Drac’ – obviously short for Dracula. He must only have been in his fifties, though he looked much older. His stoop, his gangling gait, his wizened face and his ripped and paint spattered university gown spoke of a life of some hardship and experience. And experience he certainly had. Drac had been captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942. He had suffered three years of imprisonment, cruelty and torture in the hands of those gentle and enlightened Japanese. This had affected his mind; he’d gone slightly mad. He entered the class silently and rather spookily, like a sort of pale-faced but dark ghost.

I remember more than once moving my chair a little in class and accidently scraping it along the floor. Drac would instantly look up, spot who had made the sound, me, and launch into an exchange along the following lines:

‘Do you know where boys like you will end up Lewis?’

‘No Sir’ I would reply.

‘You’ll end up in Stafford prison Lewis, that’s where you’ll end up boy!’

It did no good at all to try to argue the toss, to argue that all you’d done was move your chair. No, Drac was off on his rant. I don’t know whether he really believed what he was saying or not; he was after all a bit unhinged.

Eventually Drac would decide that it was time to teach us a bit of English literature – usually Shakespeare. How to get out of that? The trick was for one of us to raise his hand (it was a boys’ grammar school).

‘Yes boy what is it?’ Drac would say.

‘Sir, did you see the cricket on Saturday?’

That was enough. Drac loved cricket and he was off. Stroke by stroke he’d give a detailed commentary on the latest test match. He loved it and so did we – because before he or we knew it the bell would go and the lesson was over. He was a sweet man. May God bless him wherever he is.

Our next English teacher was the Mr Rawlinson I want to talk about. He was a quite different character:  rotund, dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit yet still with the compulsory MA Oxon academic gown – though this time not ripped. Mr Rawlinson at first scared the living daylights out of us. For a few weeks we thought he was a mean bastard. He was strict and a real disciplinarian. The cricket trick didn’t work anymore. Even in the middle of the jocularity and laughter of his class, he only had to say ‘Quiet’ and even the most stroppy boys (and that included me) would sit up straight and pay attention. Yet once he had established his authority he was lovely and he played the fool with gusto and abandon. He would prance and ponce around at the front of the class, playing a comic Falstaff. He would read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with such tenderness and bitterness it even moved we cynical and ignorant adolescents, for whom the middle-ages and the First World War were equally remote and foreign countries. And then he made us read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. We didn’t know then, but I know now, that this is one of the greatest evocations of the suffering and exploitation of the English working class that has ever been written. Mr Rawlinson surely knew this. Then there was To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Nineteen Eighty- Four and On the Road. What was he thinking! More Shakespeare of course: the Scottish Play, both parts of Henry the fourth and even Hamlet. He strutted and fretted and we laughed. He was a clown but we loved him.

It’s not just that I can, if I try, still drag up long quotes from these books today; it’s more that he showed us that ‘literature’ wasn’t a dry thing, it was living, it had relevance, it had something of importance to teach us. And, in a few great hands, it could make the English language soar.

This is what a great English teacher taught and inspired in me.

There were and are many teachers like Mr Rawlinson. Let us be eternally grateful that despite their under-appreciation such talented and wonderful people still do become teachers.

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In a recent article  I touched on the issue of the Enclosure of the Commonsboth in France and Britain. In Britain enclosure was a brutal affair that stretched over many centuries. George Orwell once put it thus:

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

In the previous century Karl Marx had already summed up what the enclosures were all about:

We have seen how the forcible seizure of the common lands, accompanied for the most part by the transformation of arable into pasture, began in the fifteenth century and lasted on into the sixteenth […] The advance that has been made in the eighteenth century is shown in this, that the law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to use their petty private methods in addition. The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property […] a systematic seizure of communal landed property helped, side by side with the theft of the State domains, to swell the size of those great farms which, in the eighteenth century, were called ‘capital farms’ or ‘merchant farms’, and ‘to set the country folk at liberty’ as a proletariat for the uses of industry.

The 17th Century Diggers were just one of numerous protests against the Enclosures

To be sure there was much protest, resistance and even rebellion at both the local and national levels. We can find numerous court reports, aristocratic complaints about resistance and rebellion, as well as pamphlets and writings from, for example, the Levelers and Diggers of the 17th century. E. P. Thompson and many other historians and economists have consistently tried ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan ….. from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Yet much of the evidence regarding what actually happened, and what the people affected by the Enclosures felt, does not come directly and unmediated from the ‘common’ people themselves. It doesn’t come from those whose livelihood was being taken away, from those who were being forced into the horror of the Poor House or into the equally brutal squalor of the urban factory.

I always find it humbling and moving when we can hear the actual words of those being oppressed; even more so when the testimony comes in poetic form. I would like to share two poems that do just this. The first in from the 17th century and is called The Goose and the Commons. We don’t know who wrote it, but it is an early and rare eye-witness account of the English enclosures:

                 The Goose and the Commons

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

John Clare – The Peasant-Poet

The common people may be mute in much of written history, but when they speak, as in this poem, we find that they were in no way unaware of what was happening to them and who was really responsible, even though their horizons might have only been local.

The other poem is from two hundred years later and comes from the ‘peasant-poet’ John Clare. Clare described his writings as ‘the voice of a poor man’.  As the historian of the Commons J. F. C. Harrison points out: ‘John Clare, the peasant-poet and son of a cottage farmer in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, is perhaps the only voice of an actual victim of enclosure. Helpstone was enclosed by an Act of 1809 when Clare was sixteen.’ The poem is called The Mores (‘Moors’):

                 The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow

Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between

To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity

And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers

Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave

And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men

Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won

Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass

While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye

Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day

Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed

And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray

Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –

Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight

Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung

As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh

And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

I will not offer a close reading of this poem, I leave that to you. Of course the poem is about the impact of the enclosures on both people and the countryside, but it also is quite clear regarding who gained. A reader of the poem once observed that ‘privatization of the common land appears in itself as unnatural, as a crime against the animals, birds, insects, trees, flowers, rivers and streams themselves.’ Clare was indeed an early ecologist; he even called his works a ‘language that is ever green’. I leave the final word yet again to E. P. Thompson:

Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.

Sources

John Clare, A Champion for the Poor: Political Verse and Prose. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2000;  George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August, 1944; Karl Marx, Capital. Volume 1, London, Everyman’s Library, 1974;  J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present, London: Flamingo, 1984; E. P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1975 ; Ronald Paul, A language that is ever green, Moderna Sprak, 2011.

It’s funny how very often pondering one thing will lead on to quite another. Recently I was thinking about how much great English literature has been written by women – novels in particular. I don’t mean the oh-so-sensitive Jane Austin or the bodice-rippers of the Bronte sisters, but rather women who wrote wonderful books but didn’t avoid the harsh social and political realities of the times in which they lived  or about which they wrote. Women such as Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot and Mary Shelley, there are many more.  One of my own favourites was Mary Webb.

Mary Webb's Precious Bane

Mary Webb was a Shropshire writer and she beautifully evokes a sense of place. In her last novel, Precious Bane (1924), set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, that place is Sarn Mere. It is a fictitious village on a small lake (‘mere’) in the flatlands of northern Shropshire:

There’s a discouragement about the place. It may be the water lapping, year in and year out–everywhere you look and listen, water; or the big trees waiting and considering on your right hand and on your left; or the unbreathing quiet of the place, as if it was created but an hour gone, and not created for us.

Prudence Sarn and her brother Gideon are burying their father and the coffin is standing by the grave. The mourners had all ‘drank good health’ to their father from the ‘big pewter tankard full of elderberry wine’, which was all their mother had been able to afford. But ‘at the coffin foot was our little pewter measure full of wine, and a crust of bread with it, but nobody touched them.’

One of the mourners, a certain Sexton, then stepped forward and asked:

 ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’

And Mother cried out —

‘Alas, no! Woe’s me! There is no Sin Eater for poor Sarn. Gideon gainsayed it.’

Mary Webb’s narrator Prudence then tells us what a sin-eater was:

Now it was still the custom at that time, in our part of the country, to give a fee to some poor man after a death, and then he would take bread and wine handed to him across the coffin, and eat and drink, saying —

I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man, that ye walk not over the fields nor down the by-ways. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul.

And with a calm and grievous look he would go to his own place. Mostly, my Grandad used to say, Sin Eaters were such as had been Wise Men or layers of spirits, and had fallen on evil days. Or they were poor folk that had come, through some dark deed, out of the kindly life of men, and with whom none would trade, whose only food might oftentimes be the bread and wine that had crossed the coffin. In our time there were none left around Sarn. They had nearly died out, and they had to be sent for to the mountains. It was a long way to send, and they asked a big price, instead of doing it for nothing as in the old days.

So Gideon said: ‘We’ll save the money. What good would the man do?’ But their mother ‘would not be comforted’ because her husband ‘had died in his wrath, with all his sins upon him’. ‘He had died in his boots, which is a very unket thing and bodes no good.’ So when Sexton calls out once again, ‘Be there a Sin Eater?’:

Then a strange, heart-shaking thing came to pass. Gideon stepped up to the coffin and said –

‘There is a Sin Eater.’

‘Who then? I see none,’ said Sexton.

‘I ool be the Sin Eater.’

He took up the little pewter measure full of darkness, and he looked at Mother.

‘Oot turn over the farm and all to me if I be the Sin Eater, Mother?’ he said.

‘No, no! Sin Eaters be accurst!’

‘What harm, to drink a sup of your own wine and chumble a crust of your own bread? But if you dunna care, let be. He can go with the sin on him.’

With grave misgivings the mother eventually relents; to save her husband’s soul from Satan: ‘If there’s none else to help, let his own lad take pity.’ Gideon wants to make sure that his mother will give him the family farm if he acts as his father’s sin-eater. ‘Yes, yes, my dear!’, she says, ‘What be the farm to me? You can take all, and welcome.’

Then Gideon drank the wine all of a gulp, and swallowed the crust. There was no sound in all the place but the sound of his teeth biting it up.

Then he put his hand on the coffin, standing up tall in the high black hat, with a gleaming pale face, and he said —

‘I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.’

There was a sigh from everybody then, like the wind in dry bents. Even the oxen by the gate, it seemed to me, sighed as they chewed the cud.

But when Gideon said, ‘Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows,’ I thought he said it like somebody warning off a trespasser.

Of course Gideon had made a type of Faustian pact to get the farm, his bane is gold, which he sets of to acquire quite regardless of the harm he will do to others. He is, of course, cursed and doomed.

Precious Bane is a wonderful book but what concerns me here is the idea of sin-eaters. Although sin-eating was particularly prevalent in Wales and the English border counties (including Shropshire) it was also found around other parts of Britain and Europe. It even found its way to America.

In a 1926 book entitled Funeral Customs we read:

Professor Evans of the Presbyterian College, Carmarthen, actually saw a sin-eater about the year 1825, who was then living near Llanwenog, Cardiganshire. Abhorred by the superstitious villagers as a thing unclean, the sin-eater cut himself off from all social intercourse with his fellow creatures by reason of the life he had chosen; he lived as a rule in a remote place by himself, and those who chanced to meet him avoided him as they would a leper. This unfortunate was held to be the associate of evil spirits, and given to witchcraft, incantations and unholy practices; only when a death took place did they seek him out, and when his purpose was accomplished they burned the wooden bowl and platter from which he had eaten the food handed across, or placed on the corpse for his consumption.

In the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica we are told:

A symbolic survival of it (sin eating) was witnessed as recently as 1893 at Market Drayton, Shropshire.  After a preliminary service had been held over the coffin in the house, a woman poured out a glass of wine for each bearer and handed it to him across the coffin with a ‘funeral biscuit.’ In Upper Bavaria  sin-eating still survives: a corpse cake is placed on the breast of the dead and then eaten by the nearest relative, while in the Balkan peninsular a small bread image of the deceased is made and eaten by the survivors of the family. The Dutch doed-koecks or ‘dead-cakes’, marked with the initials of the deceased, introduced into America in the 17th century, were long given to the attendants at funerals in old New York.

Richard Munslow's Grave in Ratlinghope -'The Last of the Sin-Eaters'

So in fact sin-eaters hadn’t quite died out at the end of the Napoleonic wars when Mary Webb’s novel is set. Prudence even tells us that ‘they had to be sent for to the mountains’. In England it seems the last sin-eater only died in 1906 in the village of Ratlinghope, this is indeed in the South Shropshire ‘mountains’ – in A E Housman’s ‘Blue Remembered Hills’. His name was Richard Munslow. Mr. Munslow, it seems, wasn’t a poor person or a beggar but a well-to-do farmer who ‘appears to have taken on the job after losing 3 of his children in a Whooping Cough outbreak.’ One can only imagine the tragedy of this.

Recently his grave had fallen into a bad state and the locals of Ratlinghope raised £1,000 for its restoration. Even the BBC reported in 2010 on the special service held in Ratlinghope Church in honour of this ‘the last of the sin-eaters’:

Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century.

The Reverend Norman Morris, the vicar of Ratlinghope, a village of about 100 residents on the Long Mynd near Church Stretton, led the “God’s Acre” service at St Margaret’s Church.

Mr. Morris said: “It was a very odd practice and would not have been approved of by the church but I suspect the vicar often turned a blind eye to the practice… This grave at Ratlinghope is now in an excellent state of repair but I have no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it”

Aren’t Anglican vicars such lovely understanding people today! Maybe previous vicars had turned a blind eye, though as sin-eating was seen as akin to pagan witchcraft maybe quite a few were burned as heretics as well. Isn’t it rather ironic that our nice vicar has ‘no desire to reinstate the ritual that went with it’ although the whole of Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus Christ ‘died for our sins’ – just as the sin-eaters took the sins of the dying or dead upon themselves. Every week Catholics can confess their sins and be absolved and during every Mass Christians literally drink the blood of Christ and eat his body. So not much difference there.

But what is this concept of sin? Christianity tells us that because of the ‘original sin’ we are all ‘fallen’ and every one of us is born sinful, even little children. Even kindly Anglican vicars will still come into your house and tell you that your small daughter is a sinner and that you must acknowledge this before baptism. What bunkum. A good boot up the behind is I think in order.

For me the word ‘Sin’ has become so contaminated by religious dogma that we might as well abandon it. I prefer the equally graphic word ‘Evil’. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of evil is that it is the total absence of empathy. Only people or institutions who lack empathy can commit the individual and group atrocities we witness throughout the world every day.

We don’t need sin-eaters any more, whether of the Gideon Sarn kind or the Christian kind. Whether we call things sins or evil, people and institutions need to be held responsible for the acts they commit in this life, not absolved from them every Sunday or on their death bed so they can go to heaven.