Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Steppeth Not upon My Shoes of Blue Suede

I'm normally allergic to Simon Schama, I find his twitchy bitchy style a bit too self-satisfied, and I generally go along with the prejudice against any bespectacled man over the age of 40 who affects a leather jacket. But last night I watched his programme on John Donne on BBC2, initially with gritted teeth (why call it "Simon Schama's John Donne"?) but with a gradually relaxing jaw. It was actually pretty good, and having the watchable Fiona Shaw speak the poems and engage with them together with Schama in a sort of rumpled celebrity tutorial was an inspired idea.

I have a soft spot for Donne, as I studied him in that extra term that state school students aspiring to Oxbridge used to have to put in at school (after first gaining a suitably impressive set of A Levels in the summer) in order to take the Oxbridge entrance exams in December. But what was unsettling was discovering how deeply I had absorbed the poems, but how very little I had absorbed about the man and his times. Now, I have never really studied history so I've never properly aligned the various poorly-understood timelines I carry around in my head, where hats and fashions tend to stand in for dates -- the Blackadder School of historiography, perhaps. I tend to find myself asking questions like "I know William Blake is definitely after the Pirate Times but is he after or during the Highwayman Times?" So it had never occurred to me, for example, that the "Elizabethan" Donne might easily have lived into the Age of Wigs.

In fact, as taught in schools in the late 60s / early 70s, any such historical placement was utterly irrelevant. Sensitive and ingenious close reading of the poetry was the name of the game, and close reading did not require scruples such as "this poem was written after the poet's dubiously-motivated conversion to the Anglican Church, but this one in his libertine, Catholic youth." It is astonishing (and embarrassing) to realise that, at the time, I had absolutely no idea of the significance of being born Catholic in Elizabethan England. No, really.

At Llwynburvach

I think this is why shows like Schama's and in particular Sunday evening TV costume dramas are such a popular way of "doing" literature. It's not just that it's Lit Lite for people too idle to open a book. It's that, like me, most of the population cannot enjoy reading, say, Jane Austen simply because we can't put the right hats on the right people. We don't understand the cues that say "this woman is an arriviste snob with the amusing remnants of a rural accent" or "this man is a pure soul with the manners but, alas, not the means of a gentleman". We also don't know, for example, the significance of the different modes of transport a person might use, no doubt a matter of similar characterological import in its time as taking a train vs. a private plane or, more subtly, choosing to drive a Porsche rather than an Audi. On TV, such things are made reassuringly plain by the costume and props departments and, of course, the actors.

Nuance is one of the first dyes to fade in the historical picture; after all, how much longer will it be before "blue suede shoes"* or "leopard-skin pill-box hat" require explanatory footnotes, just like the "spangled breastplate" or "busk" in Donne's To His Mistress Going To Bed? In a directorial decision of pure good taste, however, Schama's programme did not show us any ample bosoms being freed from Jacobean lacings, or any other illustrative re-enactments ("batter my heart" in a fish and chip shop, maybe?). Instead, we had Fiona Shaw's ironically raised eyebrow and mocking smile, on a sofa in an enormous room which looked like an Oxbridge tutor's room straight from central casting. Oh, and John Carey trying not to be annoyed at being talked over by Simon Schama.

But they still got him slightly wrong, I think. It's been a while since I really got down with the Songs & Sonnets or the Elegies, but I still hear a man whose voice sounds intimate but is raised just enough so that his sophisticated friends in the next room can hear how cleverly he does intimacy. Someone who knows how to out-manoeuvre you by a perfectly-timed display of vulnerability or self-deprecation. Not someone you would trust, and probably not someone you would welcome -- as both Simon Schama and John Carey weirdly claimed they both would -- as a son-in-law. Good poet, though.

* Footwear can be very confusing. I kept reading about "cordovan wings" in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Thomas, but had no idea what these might be. For many years I didn't even realise they were shoes.

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