‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.
What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.
Over the last year we’ve been putting together a series of five short films about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618 (about which you can read more here). Rather than tackle the story of the whole adventure, we decided to focus just on one stretch of the journey – the perambulation taken by Jonson and his companion through the English midlands. So what made us choose that section?
In 1603, shortly after King James VI inherited his late cousin’s throne, a London publisher printed a pamphlet offering his English readership Certayne Matters Concerning the Realme of Scotland. It was part of a upsurge of interest in all matters Scottish, as the northern realm suddenly became of pressing domestic importance to England’s inhabitants.
The pamphlet was a reprint of a tract originally published in Edinburgh nine years previously, and it takes it upon itself to list a range of different facets of Scottish land and life, very much in the manner of the early modern genre of chorography. By far the most enjoyable part of the pamphlet is its final section, ‘A Memorial of the Most Rare and Wonderful Things in Scotland’ – so, for St Andrew’s Day, here’s that section, lightly modernised and with a few editorial glosses. It focuses on natural wonders, on dogs and eagles, lochs and islands, rocks and springs. It’s both a contribution to the folklore of the country, and an attempt to list local marvels for the curious visitor from elsewhere. And it’s great fun – I especially love the idea that mountain hares were once a common sight – allegedly – around Holyrood park!
Loch Lomond, from Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland
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.
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.’
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.