Yesterday we rented a car and drove north to attend a family function for Clemency. I had my brain disengaged when booking a car online. I chose one from a depot at Victoria St. Station because it is easy to get to on the tube, completely overlooking the fact that I had to get the car from Central London to the comparative ease of the M1 during rush hour. It happened with not as much difficulty as I'd anticipated and now there's one more thing I can put on my CV. Getting it back again at 1 a.m. with no map was harder, London at 1 a.m. being about as busy as, say, Wellington at 11 a.m., only darker. There were some things about the trip I won't boast of, such as getting pinged by a speed camera in the Oxfordshire countryside, and getting hopelessly lost in Derby on the way home. Derby! Oh the humiliation! And there was Stratford.
I mean the famous one, not the one in London where they are building an enormous white elephant to host the next Olympics, or Old , or Stony but Upon Avon. The home of the bard is a pretty enough place but it is a bit of a warning about the gilded trap of tourism. The town has some interesting old buildings, but the straight edges on all the large timber and the double glazing tells a story. Almost everything has been restored, reshaped, prettified and ye olde Englishified so that it is not so much an Elizabeth 1 town as an Elizabeth II one. Once it was fitted for blokes with pointy beards and pantaloons to dart about having swordfights and putting on plays. Now it is fitted for people - many, many, many people and their buses, to shuffle about taking photos and buying postcards. I am told that the theatres in Stratford showing Shakespearian plays are always booked out but often finish the play half empty as bored people leave after the first act. 'nuff said.
In Holy Trinity church there is the grave of the man himself. The little parish church has the expected gift shop in what was once the baptistry, and there is a string of people paying a pound and a half to do as I did: go to the altar rail and take a digital photo. For a church it all has a quite secular feel. It seems not so much a place of worship as a national monument, which, indeed it is. In England the puritans had a peculiar way of making a public display of their piety. Railing against ostentation, they ostentatiously took up sledgehammers and whitewash and destroyed all the beauty of their churches: paintings, stained glass, statuary all went west in an orgy of self righteousness. The scars are still there in the churches, but something deeper happened in the English national psyche as the result of this mutiny against God and his gift of visual beauty. Without the patronage of the churches, the visual arts languished for a few centuries. Consequently, while England produced Turner and Burne Jones and Rosetti, it never produced a Rembrandt or a Leonardo or a Michaelangelo or a Picasso. Through all the centuries leading up to this one, in painting and sculpture, it was the French and Dutch and Flemish and Spanish and Italians who made all the play, while England for her part, made all the plays. After the Reformation and the Civil War England's artistic genius became focused in things literary. Milton and Jane Austen and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Keats and Dickens and, above everybody else, everywhere else, William Shakespeare. Look in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's and you will see the graves not of holy men but of literate ones. It is words which make England: the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and the collected works of William Shakespeare have shaped the way this nation explains itself to itself, and thus made them, for better or worse, what they are. So we all come and look and collect our digital trophy. Very few say a prayer but most, I think, try out their dimly remembered classroom quotations. A homage to the world's greatest poet and to the language he helped invent and to the people who are, above all, of the word.