Wednesday, 16 September 2009

When Benny met Harry

Ben Jonson, so often portrayed as the haughtiest of English playwrights, emerges as a joyous bon vivant, frolicking with shepherds, fleeing crowds of hysterical admirers and even seducing an older man, “fat Harry Ogle”, in a newly-discovered account of his epic trek on foot from London to Edinburgh.

The 400-year-old travelogue, written by an unknown accomplice of the playwright, depicts the 46-year-old Jonson reveling in his life on the road and embracing Scotland – in marked contrast to his near namesake, the curmudgeonly Dr Samuel Johnson, who made a similar journey 160 years later, but found only “a worse England” north of the border.

The manuscript was discovered by Dr James Loxley and will be included in the new Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson. Entitled My Gossip Joh[n]son his foot voyage and myne into Scotland, the 7,500-word account details Jonson’s travels as far as his investiture as an Edinburgh burgess.

It reveals the playwright as “a good fellow, someone who likes to entertain people and who is attractive to all members of society,” said Dr Loxley, the head of English at Edinburgh University. “There is a sense of a man who is a literary celebrity, indulging and really enjoying his popularity. He sometimes comes through as a carnival king. It is a rather more mixed and generous picture than has emerged before.”

Until now, accounts of Jonson’s remarkable footslog to Edinburgh in the late summer of 1618, have been based largely on the “Informations” of the Scottish poet William Drummond, who met the playwright when he arrived at Edinburgh on 17th September. The newly-found manuscript, by a previously unsuspected travelling companion, was probably written by a younger man of similar social standing to Jonson and was discovered among the papers of the Aldersey family of Aldersey Hall, near Chester.

The document recounts a kind of journey which had become surprisingly fashionable in the early 17th century. In 1600, Will Kemp, the actor, had danced all the way from London to Norwich, while Gervase Markham, a writer, undertook to walk to Berwick from London, without crossing any rivers by bridge or boat. Jonson himself mentions an unnamed traveler who “backward went to Berwick”.

If Jonson’s 71-day trek seems mundane by comparison to some of these travelers, it sheds new light over the playwright’s reputation. Over the centuries, he has been seen as self-obsessed, a contemporary of Shakespeare who, some critics suggested, might have been the model for Malvolio, the sullen steward in Twelfth Night.

Not according to this account. At towns and villages along his 450 mile route, Jonson was feted by his fans, and always indulged them – at least until the crush became too great.

At Royston in Hertfordshire, “the Maydes and young men came out of Towne to meet us’. On his arrival in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, Jonson and his accomplice “cam[e] the backe way because all the towne was vp in thronges to see vs.”

The account goes on: “There was dancing of Giantes (stilt walkers); and musick prepard to meete vs(.) … a swarme of boyes and others crosse[d] over to overtake vs, and pressed so vpon vs, that wee were fayne to present our pistols vpon them to keepe them backe ...”

The manuscript also includes what Dr Loxley called a fascinating detail about Jonson’s sex life. His arrival at Sir William Cavendish ‘s estate is introduced with the arresting sentence. “From thence to Wellbeck where my Gossip made fat harry Ogle his mistress”.

It is, said Dr Loxley, the only suggestion of bed-hopping in the entire account, and the most obvious reading suggests that Jonson seduced an older man. “Some have suggested that Jonson was not averse to sexual relationships with men, but there is no direct biographical information. People have read into the author’s work to come to conclusions about his behaviour, but this is written as a purely factual record,” said Dr Loxley.

By the time he approached Edinburgh, there is a sense of celebration about the playwright’s progress. Near North Berwick, “Sir John Humes told my gossip that his sheerers (shepherds) hadd made a great sute to him to haue a sight of him. So wee walked vp into the fieldes where was a number of them with a bagpipe, who no sooner saw my gossip, but they circled him and daunc’d round about him[.]”

Finally, when Jonson and his companion reached Edinburgh, “the women in thronges ran to see vs.” The following day, a huge crowd gathered to witness the formal end of an extraordinary journey, and Jonson entered the city.

“People … being so thicke in the street, .., wee could scarce passe by them that ran in thronges to have a sight of my gossip. The wyndowes also being full every one peeping out of a round hole lyke a head out of a pillory,” reads the account.

“All these gentlemen with others of the town brought my gossip to the heigh cross, and there on their knees drancke the kings health, testifying in that place that he hadd performed his iorney.”

Jonson remained in Scotland to the following January, and was not sighted in London until May. How did he return? “It is usually assumed he walked,” said Dr Loxley.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Hats with attitude divide the Isle of Arran

Placing his peaked cap carefully on his head, Sergeant Bob Mackay, the senior officer in Arran’s tiny police force, is wearing a weary smile. “You cannot tilt this hat aggressively,” he says. “It has a non-tilt mechanism.”

If there is an air of resignation about Sgt MacKay, it is understandable. A week ago, under the headline, “Police accused of ‘not smiling enough’”, he and his squad of four officers were lambasted in the Arran Banner newspaper by Campbell Laing, the chairman of the island’s community council. Prominent among the charges was “the aggressive way they wear their hats” - though surely this could hardly apply to the peaked cap now sitting benignly atop Sergeant McKay’s ruddy face.

“People are telling me that the hostile nature of the police and their finger -pointing attitude is unwelcome,” Mr Laing told the council at their August meeting. “You know what my background is and I do not think this aggressive style of policing is justified. How hard would it be for officers to smile?”

Allegations of authoritarianism seem incongruous. True, Sgt Mackay and his colleagues come equipped with all the disturbing accoutrements of modern policing: pinned to his body armour is a canister of CS gas, a walkie-talkie, a baton and handcuffs.

But this is Arran (population: 5,000) , marketed as “Scotland in miniature”, 167 square miles of ravishing mountains and glens, marooned an hour from the Ayrshire coast, a place where, says Sgt Mackay “sheep-worrying is a particular concern.” The sergeant’s attitude to his baton speaks volumes for the distinctiveness of island policing: “It’s useful if an old lady’s fallen down in her house, and you’ve got to break a window to get in.”

So why doesn’t he just dismiss the allegations of aggression, or say something rude about the people who accuse him? “It’s not in me,” said Sgt Mackay, whose police station is a converted cottage, next to his own little house in Lamlash. “I’ve been here ten years and that’s not how it works. Confidentiality is the key on the island. Confidentiality looks after everyone. You’ve got to build trust.”

It is, however, this same issue of trust that fires up his most strident critic. Mr Laing is a former detective, who gave up his uniform and retired to the island 17 years ago. These days he wears a kilt in the Graham tartan, and works as a tour guide in the Arran Distillery.

This argument is not about hats at all, he protests. It is about “the demeanour and attitude” of the police, about people being stopped for speeding, when travelling at 32mph (albeit through one of the island’s tiny villages) on the way to a funeral, or finding themselves being questioned in the back of a police van for their failure to wear a safety belt. “It’s something foreign in a small community. It’s a question of demeanour – I see a change, an attitude change in how the police deal with the public,” he says.

And, according to at least one of Mr Laing’s supporters, Ian Small, the argument turns on Arran “getting like a police state”. “I’ve lived her all my life and I’ve never known it so bad. It’s like they have quotas to fill,” says Mr Small, 54, an electrician. The worst incident he says occurred earlier this summer, when the police set out to breathalyse every driver coming off the ferry from Ardrossan.

“Why did the police target everyone getting off the boat,” wonders Mr Small. “They said they had received a tip-off that there had been drinking in the bar. What was the result? Queues forever, and bad feeling. Welcome to Arran.”

The truth is, counters Sgt Mackay, nothing has changed. There are no quotas. The policy on drink driving is designed both to up hold the law and to stem a shocking wave of road accidents – seven deaths in 8 years. – and is supported by the Arran Alcohol Forum, a impressive local alliance of health and education services.

If Sgt MacKay is too canny to attack his critics in the press, there is little doubt that he went along to last month’s community council determined to lance this boil of criticism. Irked by a minutes of July’s meeting in which “Campbell Laing expressed concern that over-aggressive policing was resulting in a loss of public confidence”, Sgt Mackay’s opening gambit was to pull out a picture of the Jack Warner, the actor who played Dixon of Dock Green, the friendliest of TV bobbies and suggest: “This is what you think we’re like.”

One observer - who asked not be named - wondered whether this bold move “could have gone horribly wrong for Bob”, Instead, Mr Laing’s explosion of anger “turned things into a farce”, made the headlines, and set tongues wagging in every bar from Lamlash to Lochranza.

The letters page in this weekend’s Arran Banner is bulging with indignant responses to Mr Laing’s remarks. “I could not care less how they were their hats as long as they carry out their duties properly," wrote Lady Jean Fforde, [the Arran police] are a great advertisement for the youth of today.” Mr Laing’s comments were “Fatuous nonsense” wrote Tom Sheldon of Lamlash. “We are fortunate to have Bob MacKay” wrote Brenda Stewart, who is, like Mr Laing, a community councillor.

This very public demonstration of support for the police, may not be the end of the matter. Mr Small is an inveterate agitator, something of a local legend for his campaigning. Mr Laing is no less of a fighter. Out numbered on the community council, and derided by the letter writers, he intends to take his case to a higher power, and write to a chief inspector of Strathclyde Police to air his grievance.

Sgt MacKay is too polite to comment. He shakes his head, and from beneath the chequered band of his hat he says: “Everyone is entitled to an opinion. If he represent a section of the community, I’ll take what he says on board. If not...” And with a shrug, it’s back to the sheep worriers.

Picture by James Glossop, who is really very good. You want proof? James Glossop.

This article is published by the Times, here: Times article.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

McWilliam returns to the light

The last time she took to an Edinburgh stage, Candia McWilliam was wearing dark glasses and carrying a white cane. Yesterday at the closing event of the city’s International Book Festival, she took to the platform unaided, to celebrate the most remarkable of personal transformations — the return of her sight, achieved, as she said, “by the power of words”.

For much of the past three years McWilliam, 54, whose novel Debatable Land won the Guardian fiction prize in 1994, has lived as a virtual recluse, “a parrot in a cage with the hood over it”, because she had no wish to burden her friends and family with her blindness, brought on by a rare condition called blepharospasm.

She has stumbled around her own home, “an unpractised, blind, big person” breaking her leg in a fall down the stairs, and alarming her family so much that they insisted she could no longer live alone.

Then, in May last year, she was commissioned to write an article about her blindness for the Scottish Review of Books. A fellow sufferer of blepharospasm, who had been successfully treated, read the piece, and wrote to her recommending a surgeon who had developed a technique to tackle the condition. Little more than a year later, McWilliam, to her evident delight, can see again.

"Language is saturated with vision People say, ‘I see, I see’. It’s extraordinary. I haven’t caught up with being sighted, because I am so used to being unsighted,” she said. “Had that piece not been in the paper, she would not have written to me. It really does show this human generosity. My hope is that someone, in a similarly difficult situation, might read this.”

Blepharospasm, which may be caused by a malfunction in the brain, is a condition that causes the lids to close over otherwise healthy eyes. In the most acute cases, like McWilliam’s, it causes functional blindness and from the first diagnosis she visited more than 20 doctors, but none came close to restoring her vision.

McWilliam was working as a Booker Prize judge in 2006 when her condition first appeared, a juxtaposition which led to an initial diagnosis of exhaustion. She knew that this was not true: “I had always read exactly that much. A punishment for reading really does seem too atrocious an idea.”

McWilliam’s fate, it seemed was to have an “unwelcome resident” in her head for ever. “The more you fight, the more your eyes won’t open. It is a cunning, baffling, powerful adversary,” she said. Because her eyes functioned normally behind her eyelids, McWilliam had a consciousness of light and dark, “which I came to relish”. Occasionally, she said, “I would get moments of sight after rest, after a happy dream or after crying. Unfortunately, I am rather self-trained not to cry, I am trained to soldier on”.

Her lowest point came when a drug treatment failed. “A paper had been written saying that very high doses of prescription drugs could occasionally cause relief. In my case it didn’t,” McWilliam said.

“I was so intensively medicated that I had a grand mal fit, an extreme fit, a neurological crisis. I fell to the ground, I have no recall of it. I lost a day through a drug overdose.”

She awoke in a “dying ward” of a large London hospital. Ever since she had lost her sight, McWilliam added, people had asked whether her other senses had compensated. In that hospital, she was all too aware of the world around.

“My sense of smell worked very well. And my hearing had always been very acute — people were crying to be released from life. It was sad. I knew I was further from the end than that,” McWilliam said.

Her life has been transformed by Alexander Foss, a surgeon at Nottingham University, who has carried out his two-part treatment for blepharospasm just 15 times. He described it yesterday as a “route-one treatment” that first removes the muscle that makes the eye close, before a second intervention ensures that the patient’s brow remains suspended.

McWilliam underwent her first round of surgery in January. It was, she concedes, a touch macabre, “it sort of toughened up my eyelids, by stripping them out”. Then, in June, tendons from her legs were stitched into her eyes, effectively to pull them open, and keep them that way. She awoke to the mundane sights of a hospital ward. Her vision had returned.

McWilliam must have Botox treatment every three months for the rest of her life, to maintain her sight. She can close her eyes, but not in the conventional way. “I have to bring the lower part of my face up to meet my eyelids,” she said.

Other sufferers have to wear masks when they go to sleep, but McWilliam is lucky, she can close her eyes at night. Better still, by day, “I can talk to you, looking into your face, which I couldn’t do. The eyes speak. Without eyes I was denied a means of communication. Eyes are deeply empathetic things.”

McWilliam says she is now “tidying up a memoir” and has two novels in her head. After those, how her blindness plays out in her writing remains to be seen.

“Insofar as blindness has any gifts to offer, it offers a new way of seeing,” McWilliam said. “I can either use it to deplete my life or to add another layer. I would suggest I should do the second. I want to report from that other country.”