Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"... most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or latter, about blood."

(Hogfather, Terry Pratchett)

A Revolution is about to happen in Romania.

This is the last Christmas people will legally be allowed to kill pigs by 'sticking' them.

For those who don't know what that means - basically cutting the major blood vessel in the pig's throat whist it is still alive and letting it bleed, slowly and noisily, to death - ostensibly, in order to catch as much of the blood as possible (for black pudding making) as the still beating heart pumps like mad in the extremely distressed and dying porker.

Another view might be that the European Union's animal cruelty laws are about to bang another nail in the coffin of traditional culture and ethnic life styles: Romania joins the Union on the first of January.

The two weekends before Christmas are the traditional 'Pig Killing' days in this part of the world.

I was reminded of this fact Saturday morning when the squeals of the 'first sacrificed' filled the village.

Looking across from the vantage of a hillside location, a number of large fires were being started in courtyards and a heavy haze was settling in the still air. The fires are used to burn off the bristles and to boil the copious amounts of water needed to process the carcass of a full-grown pig. Burning pig flesh and hair soon added pungency to the normal aroma of wood-smoke from domestic fires.

I have become quite used to 'country ways' and have little of the townie's qualms about killing animals for food (or clothing - try living without a fur hat in the cold winter temperatures of Eastern Europe, say -15 degrees Celsius, on an income of under 100 Euros a month which isn't sufficient to buy the petrol-derived-artificial-fabrics 'politically-correct' fashion dictates) but 'The Pig Killing' still makes me angry.

There is no need for it - a bullet (or bolt) in the head and hoisting the dead animal up in order to let the blood drain under gravity is just as effective (but try telling that to the 'we've always done it this way and it tastes better' brigade).

What struck me this year though was the amount of blood wasted - not many people seemed to be collecting it.

As I walked through the village to go and buy supplies of bread and beer I had to step over several streams of blood and water flowing out of the courtyards across and into the channels which run down to the valley's main brook.

A couple of times I had to step through sheets of red which had spread across the muddy road.

Once I passed a rather furtive looking dog – there are a number of mangy village mongrels whose parentage and ownership is somewhat hazy – which had taken possession of a string of guts, and was mixing bouts of furious chewing with dragging its prize to a place of comparative safety.

Another sign, I thought, that the sausages were not being made.

Then my mind went walkabout.

‘Now that’s a sight you won’t see in the centre of Manchester! In fact, when do you see blood in Manchester?’

And, ‘I bet Shakespeare saw blood as a child – in fact, they’d have been sticking pigs at this time of year in Stratford, back then.’

There is a lot of blood in Shakespeare.

Watching death on TV – even real death, in wars and executions (Christmas in Romania is the Ceaucescu-execution-on-TV season too) – is not the same. Blood is distanced. It is contained, without the smell, at the control of a switch.

In films and theatre, nowadays, it is Kensington Gore, and no matter how realistic it seems, the disbelief is suspended and deep inside the spectator’s head, it is not blood. It is not death. And most modern theatregoers have never experienced real blood and death anyway – sanitised hospitals and ‘Brompton Cocktails’ rule.

They used real blood – pig’s blood in fact – at, The Globe.

And there was a daily familiarity with the reality of killing – from childhood.

The children and grandchildren are involved in my village still – keeping the fire going, fetching and carrying, watching.

I am reminded of the drowning kitten poem of Seamus Heaney – Early Purges.

There will always be people who do the ‘dirty work’ – the executioners (and surgeons) – and killing should be humane – but the rest of the world is losing its grasp on one aspect of reality essential and omnipresent: Blood.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Demon Drink

(or No more Cakes and Ale)

One summer, not that long ago, I spent a weekend in a remote village in Romania - so remote in fact there was no permanent vehicle access - cars drove up a dry river bed in summer to get to it - in winter, cars didn't.

It was there I learnt about water drinking:

Animals do - humans don't.

Humans drink wine, with breakfast, dinner and tea - even children drink wine - or the very young, milk. Herb tea would sometimes be taken for illness.

It isn't alcoholism - although it can easily spill over to that - and the associated domestic violence was an accepted part of life: It is the only safe way to live in a world where the water is dangerous (and science hasn't penetrated - schools? Boiling water cleans it of disease?).

Elizabethan England was the same.

Small beer (low in alcohol) was the Elizabethan 'water'. Every housewife made it at home, children drank it in school, and clergymen knocked back a pint before giving the Sunday sermon.

Strong ale was a social drink leading to drunkenness (and a reported cause for Shakespeare's death). Wine for the rich; cider in certain parts of the country.

No wonder then that drunkenness and drink is quite a common theme in the plays of Shakespeare.

The Porter in Macbeth is drunk.

He talks about drunkenness – and talks in a most vulgar way (it is also, in the hands of a good comedy actor, exceptionally funny).

Modern western audiences, with their convoluted views on alcohol and alcohol abuse, don’t see what Shakespeare’s audience see. An audience in America might be a lot more ‘puritan’ in outlook than one in England, but missing in both is the fundamental necessity of drinking ‘beer’ - or it’s fermented equivalent – as a preserver of life.

Also missing (although less so in parts of the USA) is the essential Co-Text to Shakespeare, the Bible (and associated Elizabethan Homilies and Sermons).

The first thing that came to me when thinking of the Porter Scene, was the text used by Luther on his First sermon on Advent – Romans, chap. 13 vs. 11 – 14.

The key verse is this:

13. Let vs walke honestly as in the day, not in riotyng & dronkennesse, neither in chaumberyng & wantonnesse, neither in strife and enuying.

Is there a better comment on Macbeth at this point in the play?

Macbeth is working at night, the porter talks about the carousing and drinking, about ‘chaumberyng & wantonnesse’ (lechery) and Macbeth himself, who enters quickly, represents envy and strife (although the porter does talk about fighting drunkeness).

It is worth thinking about Luther’s comments on the quoted verse at this point:

“The six works mentioned suffice to teach that he who lives in the darkness of unbelief does not keep himself pure in his neighbor’s sight, but is immoderate in all his conduct, toward himself and toward his fellow-man.”

When we watch Macbeth and Lady Macbeth ‘doing’ the killing, we get wrapped up in the tension and magnitude of the action: We do not think – oh, should he be doing that?

The Porter’s scene gives us space – not to relax, not to relieve ourselves, but to think.

We have an immoderate commentator – reminding us of the darkness of unbelief: Pointing, in the clearest possible way, the path Macbeth is treading.

Lady Macbeth has used the word drunk a couple of times by this point.

She talks of hope being drunk – and then sleeping off the effects.

More interestingly, she enters (Act 2 ii) and says – ‘That which hath made them drunk, hath made me bold’. She has been drinking – but what reads like simple Dutch courage to us, has the smell of sulfur around it:

Honest men it has incapacitated; the evil made bold.

Other drinkers in Shakespeare include Falstaff. If it is true that Falstaff has his origins in The Vice, then his constant drunkenness and whoring support the notion that an Elizabethan audience would be wary of such activities and, no matter how amusing he seems, see his route to the gallows is clearly marked out – lined with primroses maybe.

And a point worth making here is the audience watching Macbeth’s Porter could well have Falstaff in mind – surely it is the same actor playing the parts?

Which brings on the question – which parts did the Porter double? If it is a witch – his entrance as the Porter would instantly link evils.

What does this say of other drunks and drink scenes?

Iago uses drink to bring the downfall of Cassio – Iago playing another Vice/Morality play figure, Good Fellowship!

In Hamlet and Antony and Cleopatra, there are drink scenes with negative connotations.

In Julius Caesar though, and 12th Night, surely drink is looked on slightly differently? Antony is praised by Caesar for ‘loving drink’.

And Toby Belch’s repost to the Puritan Malvolio, ‘Because thou art virtuous, Shall there be no more cakes and ale?’ surely has a double edge.

Friday, December 08, 2006

If iness

(On Auden's Poem, If I Could Tell You)

Daniel Barenboim, at the start of this year's Reith Lectures, reminded his audience that it is not possible to talk about music - only people's reactions to music. Sometimes I think that this is also true about literature - especially literature which uses words with the intensity Auden manages in this poem.

If asked,

"What is this poem about?"

I'd answer something like:

"The fearfulness of unknowable inevitability."

For me, it is a poem which touches on the limitation of human reasoning, which asks unanswerable questions while longing for certainty, which expresses an 'existential angst'.

But above all, it is a love poem.

Let me start with the uncertainty.

Two other 'If' poems come to mind - 'If I should die' and Kipling's, 'If'.

What is noticeable about both these is the certainty of them: Things will happen, states of being will come into existence, under certain conditions.

Both go, If : Then!

There is a 'knowableness' here. We can predict the future; Cause and Effect are in observable operation.

In contrast, Auden's 'If' leads to 'would' - and the unspoken, 'But I can't'. It expresses an unfulfillable desire.

I think this is most clearly stated in the third stanza. What is wanted here is knowledge - of the future, of "fortunes". This suggests not just what will happen, but how good (or bad) will it be?

An image, of Adam and Eve, came to me while thinking of this stanza - of Adam saying these lines to Eve, and Eve popping off to grab 'the fruit of knowledge' in order to satisfy both their desires.

If I can pass beyond the superficiality of this (and it makes me smile, I must admit), the 'tree of knowledge' myth does reflect a deep, possibly genetically pre-programmed, desire in all humanity for a patterned, readable, knowable existence. Our Human curiosity demands answers.

The fourth stanza tackles a couple of these demands:

"Where does the wind come from?"


"Why do leaves decay?"

Human 'reason' can take us so far - scientific answers can be given about the physical world - but Auden doesn't seem to mean this sort of answer when he posses questions of origins and reasons: His is a metaphysical demand.

The fifth stanza has moved firmly beyond 'realism' - we have roses with wants, and visions becoming manifest.

Except, we don't.

We have a 'Perhaps' at the start. And I 'hear' a tenderness in the tone of voice - especially in the last line repetition of the 'if I could, I would' sentiment.

This is, after all, a 'Love Poem'.

One of the forces behind it is the desire to satisfy a partner: Which begs the question, "What thought or feeling has the partner expressed to provoke this response?"

Is it a desire for knowledge of their future happiness? Or was it an expressed fear of their love not lasting?

Or is the poem 'more cerebral', like a Shakespeare sonnet - provoked not by an external prompt, but by an internal searching?

Shakespeare’s sonnets also remind me of the themes and images used by Auden.

Time's influence on external beauty is to register decay

Internal beauty is eternal.

Whether it is the 'too short a date' of a summer day, or time's 'I told you so', there is a price to pay for living:

The leaves decay.

We exist in nature –

'too hot the eye of heaven shines',

and winds blow - even if we don't know their source.

But there is something beyond this reality - Love,

'the ever fixed mark';

love which the 'I' of both Shakespeare and Auden, feel and know - and confirm in their poems.

The final Shakespearean quality I find in the poem is in its use of form.

This is not a sonnet - but its form carries as much weight and contributes considerably to the meaning.

There is a thudding base line of repetition - Time, Time, Time; I told you so; I told you so; I told you so.

This contributes considerably to the overall feeling –

Time is inescapable: Consequence inevitable.

The repeated, 'If I could, I would' gives that dreadful sense of the unknowable.

The final twisting of 'Time will', to 'Will Time?' drags in a desire for certainty, which the final defeated 'If I could, I would' can only admit to.

And a final poem this overall encounter with time, nature and love reminds me of is ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold.

There the voice of the narrator conjures up the great questions I feel are touched on here by Auden in what is quite a remarkable poem.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Luther, Bishops Bible, Macbeth

Just been reading through Luther's Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (don't ask why - I am not even a Christian).

Couldn't stop thinking of Macbeth all the way through - constant references to light and dark, to faith, to things like:

vices that seek material darkness and secret places.


The proverbial expression “shameless night” is a true one. Works we are ashamed to perform in the day are wrought in the night The day, being shamefaced, constrains us to walk honourably. A Christian should so live that he need never be ashamed of the character of his works, though they be revealed to all the world.

Now, I am not suggesting that Shakespeare had this particular sermon in mind, but I do think it is worth remembering that the intensity of this - the repartition of light and dark, the dragging out of the christian symbolism, the debate and discussion are part of the Elizabethan Religious experience -

Something like:

12. The nyght is passed, the day is come nye. Let vs therfore caste away the deedes of darknesse, & let vs put on the armour of lyght.

13.Let vs walke honestly as in the day, not in riotyng & dronkennesse, neither in chaumberyng & wantonnesse, neither in strife and enuying.

Romans 13: 12/13 (Bishops Bible)

Would be a familiar text to the audience - especially around Christmas time. Do we know when Macbeth was performed at court?

(Just a spontaneous thought)

The next jerk in my thinking was about the writing for readers:

Luther is writing - for reading out loud: Do we know if it was still common practice to read 'out loud' in Shakespeare's day?

I recall a production of Faustus which had him, in the opening scene, moving from music stand to music stand to read out loud quotes from his learned books.

If schools still maintained the practice (and I am again reminded of the Muslim world - children learning the Koran by heart - by reciting out loud) - and 'papers' were delivered 'viva' (still in the western academic world today) in the universities - how far apart were the practices of writing for the theatre and writing for a reading out loud 'readership'?