This little world – and Brexit
After over 200 posts, this is the first one that is not in the slightest related to the Paula Principle (unless a link occurs to me as I type). Last night we went to the Almeida Theatre’s production of Richard II, with Simon Russell Beale in the title role, and in a t-shirt like the rest of the cast.
It’s set in a bleak ferrous cube, and there’s no escape – no-one leaves the stage and it’s 100 minutes with no interval. By the end, buckets of blood have been sloshed around, as well as water to wash the dirt out of Richard’s hair as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that Bolingbroke has now succeeded him as king. I found the production compelling, but it was the first time I had seen the play and I was glad to be able to read the text – two acts before, and three after, as it happened. Shakespeare’s verse takes us through the psychological thrashings of a deposed king, but also into the swaying, ambivalent emotions of those who bring him down. For many of the court, respect for the position of king wrestles with contempt for the person who occupies it.
For no one is this truer than Gaunt, the uncle of the king and the brother of his murdered predecessor. He delivers the famous “scept’red isle” speech in Act 1. It tapped directly and with astonishing aptness into my feelings about Brexit – which is what has prompted this blog.
As we all know, the speech expresses Gaunt’s aching, almost desperate feelings of English patriotism.
This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle/ this earth of majesty, this seat of Man,/this other Eden, demi-Paradise,/This fortress built by Nature for herself/Against infection and the hand of war/This happy breed of men, this little world/This precious stone set in a silver sea….This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
So far, so sweet. Soon, though, the tone changes – and we come to where we are now:
This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land/Dear for her reputation through the world/Is now leas’d out – I die pronouncing it – /Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
This struck home with me. For some time I have been asking around for anyone who can point to a country – rich or poor – which has offered up its assets for sale more readily than we have: infrastructure (cf railways), energy, buildings. I was recently walking round London with a French friend of my daughter’s, and he simply could not believe that the former City Hall had been sold off to a Japanese hotel chain. I could just see the question about where on earth was our national pride forming on his lips.
It gets tougher:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,/Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege/of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,/ with inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;/That England, that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
How apt is this? I think of ‘inky blots and rotten parchment bonds’ as flagging up our subservience to dodgy financial dealers and the lawyers who enable the beneficiaries to file away their obscene wealth in shell property companies and meretricious tax havens. But it’s the last couplet that really hits home.
First, the jarring note: we would not today revel on our colonial conquerings. But ‘shameful conquest of itself’ sums it all up – the criminally risky decision to hold the 2016 referendum; the encompassing coarseness of the debate; the childish xenophobia of supposed leaders; the trashing of truth, with total impunity; and the nationally demeaning incompetence of the subsequent process. We have in effect trashed – not even sold – our last remaining valuable asset: our reputation, our soft power.
I speak as someone with no English blood in him – son of an Austrian immigrant and a Scottish mother – but Gaunt could have been speaking for me.
Apologies: no Paula link, and not much Xmas cheer. But we may yet get another chance, if the PV campaign can pull it off. Please help.