Monday, 23 January 2017

'And the knights are no more, and the dragons are dead' by Steve Gladwin

Sometimes I can’t sleep. This has been going on for seven years. I wouldn’t call it insomnia exactly, because I wouldn’t want to insult real insomniacs who I’m sure suffer a lot more than I do. If I can’t get off to sleep it’s usually because I’m trying too hard, or something has happened earlier or recently that I can’t get out of my mind. My real problems however come with getting back to sleep. It’s then that my chattering mind starts to misbehave and refuses to be put on the naughty step.

So what keeps me awake? Is it plot because I’m a writer, or seeking to solve the human condition in the nearly Trump era, (a sentence that isn’t half as funny as it sounds!). No, for the most part I’m kept awake by the trivial, the pointless and the peripheral, and especially with poems and song lyrics running forever through my mind, like a Dr Beeching branch line that no-one has told had been dismantled.  

I used to love Gilbert and Sullivan when I was a teenager, got all the records out of the library and sung happily along to the Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song from 'Iolanthe'. I can still recite this and I know Neil Gaiman can too! Not anymore! I still quite like G and S and I actually bought ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ last Christmas, but I can’t play it because the lyrics run through in my head and keep me awake. The same goes for my favourite musical, ‘Kiss me Kate’. Rosie and I have a system whereby we agree never to watch the film after a certain time of day, because otherwise ‘I’ve Come To Wife It Wealthily In Padua’ will go through our heads and we’ll hate men all night, (see what I did there?)

And yet, do you know, I’m happy that my brain can retain even the most obscure lines and facts, and that I can remember all of Oberon’s lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even though I’ll probably never need them again. I’m even more happy that I was one of a generation of children who learnt stories and poems in the 1960’s and retained them, and that my parents read me stories and introduced me to new ones, taught me nursery rhymes and all kinds of songs they’d learnt themselves. I’m happy that we gathered round the piano every Christmas and sung carols together - including 'Oh Come All Ye Faithful' with the descant for Sing Choirs of Angels - and our family party piece of 'The Shepherd’s Farewell' by Berlioz. I’m happy to be a rememberer and a rote learner, for all the bad press the enforcing of such methods quite rightly gets.

In my blog several months ago, I explored some of the ideas I learnt on the future learn course Mental Health in Literature, and related how one of the interviews was about using poetry with Alzheimer’s patients, and the wonderful results that have come from it, where patients who have formerly only been distressed or aggressive, have calmed down within a few lines of Wordsworth’s daffodils and said ‘more, more.’

These elderly patients have the wonderful advantage of being of the generation just before mine when children still learnt poems and stories and rhymes in school. I remember sadly reflecting at the time how , when the current children of this generation become old, if there are still such conditions as Alzheimer’s and dementia, there will be no rote-learnt poems to call on in their memory bank, no magical moment like this one.

It was Christmas Day sometime in the 1970’s. We were gathered in the ‘front room’ with my auntie and uncle and three surviving grandparents, when my grandma Gladwin began to recite poetry she remembered from school. Now there is nothing that unusual about this, but in her case one poem led to another and another and another, before twenty minutes must have gone by and everyone sat there gasping in amazement. When she’d finished her impromptu recital, my Grandma gave a typical chuckle and said that most of them she hadn’t spoken since school.

On a later date my dad got her to recite all of the poems she could remember into a tape recorder and she filled a whole side of a C90. My Granddad said there were some even he’d never heard. My parents still have the recording. Here is the poem I remember best and I wonder if anyone else recognises or had to learn it.

The Little Doll
~Charles Kingsley

I once had a sweet little doll, dears,
The prettiest doll in the world;
Her cheeks were so red and so white; dears,
And her hair was so charmingly curled.
But I lost my poor little doll, dears,
As I played in the heath one day;
And I cried for her more than a week, dears;
But I never could find where she lay.
I found my poor little doll, dears,
As I played in the heath one day:
Folks say she is terrible changed, dears,
For her paint is all washed away,
And her arm trodden off by the cows, dears,
And her hair not the least bit curled:
Yet for old sakes' sake she is still, dears,
The prettiest doll in the world.

I asked my father if he could remember the first poem he ever had to recite and he came up with this one. He recalls how my grandma being at pains to coach him to make the words ‘soft as silk’ sound just that.

A little fly was looking round for something good to eat,
A lump of sugar he did spy, he thought it quite a treat,
He saw a jug and off he flew on wings as soft as silk,
But when he tried to peep inside, he tumbled in the milk.

Oh dear, or dear!

As for me, well I learnt many things by rote both at school and play, but I’ll always remember us chanting this little hymn as we trooped into assembly – whether it was junior or secondary I can’t remember.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.

After the sun, the rain;
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Til the work be done.

All that we need to do;
Be we low or high;
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer to god on high.

By Lizette W Reese (1856-1935

Now there’s an odd thing, because I remember the last verse ending ‘nearer the sky’, so did we learn it that way, or is it my memory that’s had it wrong all these years?

But this whole thing started because of two entirely separate incidents. The first was that – quite by chance - the words of a song from  childhood came into my head, and I remembered how much I’d loved it. Anyone remember this one.

When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
For God and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride,
Though back into storyland giants have fled,
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
'Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
And let me set free with the sword of my youth,
From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.

I later learnt that these lyrics were used as the basis of Alan Ahlberg’s ‘Headmaster’s Hymn’ where the children are trying to recite it while several insist on misbehaving. The poem combines the two. I also learnt that the version we sung was to a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose footsteps, regular readers might recount, I seem to be constantly stepping in.

The other morning I was reading Ruth’s recent abba blog on Monica Edwards, where she asked if there were any modern children’s stories which might be considered unputdownable. Instead I found myself reflecting on what I used to read, as I do increasingly nowadays. My thoughts led me to Malcolm Saville and the Lone Pine Mysteries, which for a long time I’ve wanted to read again. Looking at the list of twenty Lone Pine books, I noticed that one was called ‘Seven White Gates’. My thoughts immediately went back to another song I learnt from my parents which I surely haven’t thought of since, and we were off again.

Seven locks upon the red gate, 
Seven gates about the red town. 
In the town there lives a butcher 
And his name is Handsome John Brown.
In the town there lives a butcher 
And his name is Handsome John Brown. 

John Browns's boots are polished so fine,
John Brown's spurs they jingle and shine.
On his coat a crimson flower,
In his hand a glass of red wine.
On his coat a crimson flower,
In his hand a glass of red wine.

In the night. the golden spurs ring,
In the dark, the leather boots shine.
Don't come tapping at the window,
Now your heart no longer is mine.
Don't come tapping at the window,
Now your heart no longer is mine.

‘The Handsome Butcher was set to music by Matyas Gyorgy Seiber and it was clearly this version which my sister and I were taught by my parents.
Apart from indulging in a bit of nostalgia for myself and hopefully for a few others, what am I saying in this blog? I guess it’s partly a lament for that which has been lost, but thankfully not irretrievably. However I hope it’s also a celebration of the memories so many of us have been gifted with, whether from the positive rote learning of their schools, or the actions, nurture and love of forward thinking parents who also thought backwards to provide for their children those things which had been best in their own childhood. For all the technology which now impacts on my life and yours, a wonderful shining part of me will remain in the time of living knights and unslain dragons, where the butcher’s spurs will always ring and his boots shine as he taps ever hopefully at the window.

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'


Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating blog, Steve, and one which brought back many memories for me too! With regard to "Glad that I live am I" (last line was definitely "Nearer the sky"!) and "When a Knight won his spurs", you'll be glad to know that when I was last teaching, a few years ago now, admittedly, both were regular hymns in Assembly, and the latter was always the children's favourite - probably because of the wonderful pictures it conjured up! Similarly, Malcolm Saville was one of my favourite authors when I was 11 up - and "Seven White Gates" was the first of the Lone Pine series that I came across, when my class teacher read it to us in the first year of the Grammar school. I loved it, and subsequently borrowed all the others in the series from the library.
As to "The Little Doll", yes, I remember that one too, though I can't remember where or when I heard it, and when I was in a choir at college we sang "The Handsome Butcher".
You made a very good point about Altzeimers patients too, which is all the more reason for getting our children/grandchildren used to learning favourite poems/songs so they will have plenty in their memory store for future reference.
Thanks again for a great blog! (And good luck with the sleeping!)

Susan Price said...

Yes, I can remember singing 'Glad That I Live Am I' and 'When A Knight Won His Spurs' at school. The knight was my favourite because, as Lynne says, it had knights and dragons in it.
I think the first rhyme I ever learned was:

The common cormorant, or shag,
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason, as you'll see, no doubt,
Is to keep the lightening out.
But what this unobservant bird
Does not notice is that herds
Of wandering bears will come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

I still love those unobservant birds and those tidy bears.

Here's one which was keeping me awake last night:

A fly and a flea in a flue,
Said, "We're trapped! What shall we do?"
Said the fly,"Let us flee!"
Said the flea, "Let us fly!"
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

Penny Dolan said...

Steve, I never learned "The Lost Doll" but remember reading it years ago. The poem has always struck me as unbearably haunting and tragic and (later) as about something far more adult than a lost toy, convenient though that title was for editors of children's anthologies.

The rhythm and rhyme of these old but familiar poems make them into a kind of music, and as Lynne said, were often known as songs and hymns in school assemblies. Oh, I have suddenly noticed that you're using them as half-lullabies too, aren't you, Steve? Repetition, whether aloud or in the head, embeds the lines deep in the memory, and your descriptions of literature work with Alzheimers patients lifts the heart right now.

One of my grand-mothers quite often recited a particularly sentimental poem("Fair daffodils, we weep to see thee . . ." by Robert Herrick) well into her old age, despite years of mental illness, delusions and forgetfulness. The poem had obviously been her party piece for family gatherings, parish shows and similar events before broadcast media took over.

Changes in educational ideas and the rise of more socially relevant poetry took many such verses out of everyday school practice - let alone the time needed fr teachers to hear the recitals - so such "rote learning" is probably only found in Elocution and Drama classes now and private schools, despite the urging of various modern poets such as Tony Mitton and more. Also worth noting is the organisation POETRY BY HEART, which runs annual competitions, and lots of details online.

A small historic point. As I was reading Kate Summerscale's THE WICKED BOY recently (a biography of a child murderer) I discovered that being able to recite several lines of a piece of poetry was -around 1894 - one of the standards a child was supposed to be able to achieve by the end of elementary education. Was that pattern the root of the early to mid 20C state-school poetry learning? Mental and spoken ability was surely being tested by this task, but I'm glad that the decades of poems brought a sense of joy and accomplishment to many children (and now-grown children)too.

Penny Dolan said...

My earliest learned poem, though? A muddle of nursery rhymes, and the A.A. Milne verses my mother read to me at night. I can recall reciting the whole of "The Falls of Lodore" at junior school - of which I can barely recall a word now. It's the inner re-telling & re-singing that keeps the words in the mind.

Ann Turnbull said...

Steve, this post had such a lot of resonance for me! Just before Christmas I was reciting (admittedly with the words to hand) Wordsworth's Daffodils at my mother's funeral. And on Christmas Eve I was at a carol concert at the Royal Albert Hall where the audience was encouraged to stand up and participate, and I knew all the words and sang the descant Sing Choirs of Angels that I remembered from school choir. I know all the songs and poems you mentioned except the last one. And What to Look for in Summer and What to Look for in Winter are sitting on my office shelves and often used for quick seasonal reference. I was at school in the 1950s and we regularly had to learn poems by heart. I was lucky because I found that easy, but not everyone did, so perhaps it was a mixed blessing. A more relaxed place to learn was at home.

Steve Gladwin said...

I really hoped that this would be a post which people would enjoy and comment on so I;m so glad it has been. Thanks all not just for your enthusiastic responses, but for sharing your precious memories. I'm glad you've confirmed that last line Lynne - it works so much better and is the one in my memory. Sue that's a tongue twister which might well cure my insomnia, when I have it. Impressive! A fund of stuff to think about and back up there Penny, thanks. It's lovely to hear a bit of the background to my unique era of education! And Anne I'm so glads someone else loves the descant as much as I do!

Eigon said...

My sister learned Handsome John Brown at junior school - and I've never seen the words before! She used to sing the descant to Sing Choirs of Angels, too!
When A Knight Won His Spurs was one of my favourites, along with Lord of the Dance.