Pedants’ Corner: When did Ben Jonson die?

Not actually a picture of Ben Jonson. As accurate an image as the Cobbe portrait is of Shakespeare, though.

An actor personating Ben Jonson in a risible film. The surviving portrait of the poet suggests a young Tom Baker or Rory McGrath would make a better likeness

Each year, on August 6, the world stops to commemorate Ben Jonson’s death. Well, that’s obviously overstating it, but a few ‘on this day’ tweets go round; likewise, we get the odd mention in almanacs and lists of memorable anniversaries. Westminster Abbey, where Jonson is both buried and commemorated in Poets’ Corner, gets in on the act too. Thing is, this work of mourning also takes place – to a much lesser extent – on August 16 each year, and it would surely be beyond the extravagance even of big Ben to have had two deaths. Indeed, there’s long been confusion over exactly when the most celebrated poet of his age closed his account – and when I say ‘long’, I mean right from the month it actually happened.

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Taking a Roundabout Way

Cranach opening 1 detail

Hamlet greets the travelling players – Edward Gordon Craig, from the Cranach Press Hamlet, 1930

The experience of theatrical touring has long been woven from contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the undeniable romance of the road, the fun of exploring new places, but on the other – well, there are the sometimes grim discomforts of being stuck for weeks on end in transit or deeply dodgy accommodation, surviving on an unbalanced diet of pot noodles and gallows humour. Something of these indignities was captured beautifully in Ben Jonson’s evocation of the travelling player in Poetaster: the player Histrio there has the prospect of success as a poet dangled before him, with the singular benefit that he will ‘not need to travail [meaning both ‘travel’ and ‘labour’] with thy pumps full of gravel any more, after a blind jade and a hamper, and stalk upon boards and barrel heads to an old cracked trumpet.’

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Some Stories We Can Tell About the Digital Humanities

What is there left to say about the digital humanities? I found myself staring down the barrel of that question last week, as an invited speaker at the University of Oxford’s wonderful Digital Humanities Summer School. I gulped. So much has already been said, after all. There are journals, handbooks, and overviews, publishers’ lists, blogs, online communities, small colloquia and large scale annual conferences. There are centres and institutes and labs, research council themes, a ceaseless torrent of lively, exciting, innovative projects and initiatives with which it’s already impossible to keep up. Surrounded by all this whirl, it might seem forlorn for a relatively late entrant into the field like myself to have any hope of saying something interesting at all. Indeed, I may not have done. I could have kept my head down, I suppose, and focused on the minutiae of projects I’ve been involved with. But I find myself, despite the evident hazards, unable to resist the temptation to lift the gaze a bit – to try and see a story, an itinerary, plugging those projects into a broader movement or process. But what would that story be?

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How to Live in the Past

I spent two ridiculously busy days last week helping out with the only slightly impossible task of filming Ben Jonson’s 1618 walk from London to Edinburgh. We weren’t going for the whole thing – we had decided to focus on one of several detours the walkers took from the route of the old or great north road. This one took the form of two arcs – out to Belvoir and Bottesford before touching base again at Newark, and then off westwards again via Rufford and Welbeck to reach as far as Bolsover. We spent a lot of time criss-crossing what had seemed, from the map, like a little corner of – mostly – Nottinghamshire, but which wasn’t quite so compact once we got out there.

Up on the hill at Belvoir

Up on the hill at Belvoir

We were trying not only to retrace Jonson’s footsteps, but to indicate some of the ways in which his 400 year old piece of performance art might be grasped at such a great distance in time. It is all very well tracing out a journey as a line on the map, but unless you can get some sense of the peaks, troughs, plateaux and vistas you won’t get a feel for its rhythm, or even the sequence of sights and views it presents you with. Slogging up to Belvoir, then struggling to get your breath back while you pick out your next destination by its spire in the vale below, brings home just how much of a bodily effort it all was.

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Angry Politics

One of the funniest byproducts of recent political campaigns in Scotland has been the irresistible rise of Angry Salmond. Starting off as a parody twitter account, and now aspiring to the status of monetised meme, Angry Salmond has epitomised the irreverence of the Yes campaign and the new, metamorphosed SNP. This parody celebrates rather than satirises the utopian element in pro-independence politics – a tweet such as the one below, posted on the day of the referendum itself, somehow manages to affirm rather than undermine the cause.

Angry tweet

And the funniest thing about Angry Salmond is that he isn’t actually all that angry. Sure, he swears a bit and insults his – and the SNP’s – opponents, but he does so from underneath a pink beret and from behind some very silly sunglasses. When people dress up as Angry Salmond for photos – as they do – they always make sure to smile. The anger, such as it is, is just part of the schtick.

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The Accidental Nationalist

I didn’t mean it to happen – but for a short period, around the age of 18, I think I was an English Nationalist. I liked to go shopping for bad clothes and bootleg tapes in Kensington Market, and one day chanced upon a stall piled with books, pamphlets and pictures that had a beguiling whiff of Albion about it. Albion looked cool, in a fuzzy sort of way. I was hopped up on Blake, enamoured of the martyrologies of Burford, Peterloo and Tolpuddle – I couldn’t get enough of books with titles like The English Revolution, The Making of the English Working Class, and A People’s History of England. Among the literature, the stall had a small stock of badges. I wasn’t sure about some of the symbols, but a neat little St George’s Cross lapel pin looked just the thing. To me, it said Jerusalem – radical promise, utopian affirmation, the memory and hope of a world turned upside down.

I stopped wearing it a couple of months later. Pausing at a table in a pub where an old friend sat chatting with some blokes I didn’t know, I said hello. To my surprise, one of them froze, then recoiled: he was staring at my badge. There was fear, anger, and confusion – it was all hugely embarrassing. If the badge spoke of England, it clearly wasn’t the millennial England I’d been carefully confecting for myself. (With hindsight, I suspect my crew cut, nine-hole docs and MA1 weren’t helping either.) The incident grew a moral or two – that words and symbols couldn’t just be made to mean what I wanted them to mean, damn them, and that the emblems of nationhood had a distinctly unnerving power. It wasn’t a power that could be innocently invoked. My utopian imaginings ought not to be knitted into a dream of England.

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