The Bolingbroke Hook

A note from my diary, Sunday 25th November 2018:

Yesterday, my wife and I joined four dear old friends in a south London watering hole called The Bolingbroke. We had a marvellous evening together and the name of the venue served as a hook to memory from 1969.

Now, there's a little story to tell about Bolingbroke, i.e. a character in a Tudor drama in this case rather than a location. Many years ago in Ireland, I was studying Shakespeare's Richard II at school as it was on our nation’s educational curriculum. Not only did we read it, but we studied it, we discussed it and then, joy of joys, we came to act it out. Among the dramatis personae of this play where our class was assigned the different roles of King Richard himself, Duke of York, John of Gaunt etc., I was given the part of Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt. 

Our wonderful English master, Michael G. himself an Englishman and a veteran of the theatre where he had acted in repertory touring around England and Ireland as a younger man in the 1930s and 40s, would give us expert guidance on how to perform the various roles and what sort of play Richard II was. Fortunately, as our very same Michael G. was also our history teacher, he was able to place Shakespeare's drama within an historical context. This made for an enriched experience of not just the play, Richard II itself and the era in which the drama was set but Michael G. also delved into the technicalities of drama and even the structural aspect of Shakespearean plays. We even explored the fundamental nuts and bolts of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing in the form of rhyming couplets and the ubiquitous iambic pentameter occasionally interspersed with a trochee of course (not forgetting their classical antecedents) and our teacher even devised activities for us boys based on this poetic tool by organising the class into groups so that we would talk to each other in modern speech based on the iambic pentameter construction William S. himself had employed. We even played a simple game of consigning some of the capitals of the world either to the iambus or trochee camp on the basis of the inflection used in the pronunciation of the word. So, Madrid or Berlin, for instance, would be the former (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) whereas Dublin, Paris or London would be the latter (stressed followed by an unstressed syllable).

It made the whole aspect of learning this stuff a complete and utter joy while also being very funny at times, so that I have such incredibly strong memories of these events of so long ago. I recall the intense excitement around this time as a young teenager when the whole shebang (iambus?) of the construct underpinning rhythm of speech used by Shakespeare and other playwrights ‘clicked’ one day and from then on there was no looking back. I found the role of Henry Bolingbroke so thrilling to act out and I remember researching about the actual historical character I was playing. Of course, in those days there was no internet so it meant a few extra-curricular forays on cold winter evenings where I had to hoof it down to our local public library which thankfully was well stocked with suitable volumes holding the kind of information I needed.

Our English teacher brought Shakespeare to life in such an imaginative and engaging way and as 14-year olds in class we revelled in the thrill of playing our respective roles in Richard II. For us boys back in Ireland in those days, it was exhilarating as we engaged with all the characters and the shenanigans of Richard II and his royal court. Michael G. did work us hard though. We initially read through Richard II and were also required to learn vast screeds of it off by heart, then we rehearsed it several times finally giving a performance of (most of) the play at the end of term.

It was around this time in the late 1960s, that the thought of acting and directing in the theatre entered into my consciousness as a possible future career and I remember the inner excitement that grew within as I learnt more about this fascinating universe. More later.

To add a frisson of delight to our connect with Richard II in our English lessons at this time, Michael G. invited a leading light from the drama society of Trinity College Dublin, Stephen R., to perform for us. Stephen was then an undergraduate who had already carved out a name for himself as an actor and director on the Irish stage while also building up a solid reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when a theatrical production was under consideration. You have to imagine the buzz in that Dublin classroom of 49 years ago when Michael G. and Stephen R. acted out some of the 'highlights' from the play. I recall vividly how energised I was by this drama being played out in front of us during our remarkable exposure to literary education don't forget on some long-past rainy Tuesday afternoon and you were (mentally) whisked back to the end of 14th century England. As far as I was concerned, I had become witness to King Richard II and the nefarious goings-on in his kingdom. It was captivating. It was such fun.

When Michael G. and this supremely-talented Trinity player had concluded their virtuoso performance the whole class erupted into thunderous and prolonged applause. Then, our English master suddenly turned to me and asked me to stand and recite the famous speech of John of Gaunt which marks the start of the action from Act 2, Scene 1 of the play. As I’m sure you will recall, in this heartfelt address, a mortally ill John of Gaunt gives Kind Richard II a very frank dressing down.

I was utterly thrown by this request for two reasons: firstly, the teacher had not given me any forewarning of this and, secondly, as I had committed to memory all my lines as Henry Bolingbroke as directed by my teacher, I reckoned that he must have momentarily forgotten the original part assigned to me. I do remember standing in that class barely able to utter the words of another character, albeit the important personage of John of Gaunt. Thankfully, Stephen came to my rescue and assisted me and, little by little, I was somehow buoyed up by the magic of the moment, fuelled with adrenalin and swept along by the metrical cadence of the words of Shakespeare, the lines seemed to work their way through me and I was able to deliver John of Gaunt's soliloquy:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.                                               

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.                             

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home, etc.

Somehow, I managed to finish the speech and was surprised to receive applause from my classmates, our charismatic theatrical visitor and our inspirational English teacher. 

FYI, Stephen R. in later life went on to be the director of a well-known theatre in London and subsequently became a longstanding and successful head of a nationwide charity. Michael G. continued to inspire as our school's English and History master for many more years and he remains to this day a shining star in my firmament of learning. Subsequently, when Michael G.’s teaching career concluded, he had a long and happy retirement in Cornwall where I had the pleasure of spending some time with him in 1996 not long before he passed away later that same year. On that visit, I was particularly touched when he showed me that he had given pride of place to a family photo I had sent him some years before of my wife, two sons and myself. It was placed prominently on his mantelpiece.

So you see, when I come across the word Bolingbroke, I am reminded of that excitement of participating in a school play from nearly fifty years ago where, as a youngster, I got to play two parts, albeit briefly in a drama by William Shakespeare. Also, when reflecting on this episode of my life long past, I think I was most fortunate to have had such an excellent teacher during those formative years who encouraged a lifelong love of language, literature, reading, drama, history and learning.

P.S. Now that I come to think of it, the above speech of John of Gaunt could possibly serve as a swingeing metaphor for the whole ridiculosity of the entirotrocious Brexit debaclorumminimus but of course that is another kettle of physhch, as they say in Kinnegad.

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Climbing

Climb up the steps of love;

Don't vault at once to the roof,

but slowly ascend

in descending slowly

into one another.

 

Reach (not Paradise)

Each other, and through,

To others you will be,

Greeting each and saying,

“I will love you in your time.”

 

Climb up the steps of love,

Marking each in memory,

Surely with the easy pace

Of Joy.

 

 

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You know

Some things you just know, without understanding or reasoning. They just are.

From that first breath we’re privileged with, the gasp that comes from the longest silence, you know there is something greater than any understanding can reveal.

It’s a look. A smell. A touch that melts a hundred hardened hearts and can prompt the unfurling of the first delicate petal from the centre of a tightly bound rose. It unleashes an unimaginable, a vast infinite beyond comprehension.

It’s when time is nothing and growth is everything, when nothing can morph into everything and everything can become entirety. That first breath tells all. Is all. The first step, the first word spoken. It’s when a teenager openly admires a parent’s bravery, and that other teenager rises to speak her mind in forthright candour and with a strength you wish all people had.

In that, is a knowing that can’t be explained. It’s something that stirs deep within the youngest of people and oldest of souls, and prompts action when no action may be wanted. It comes on impulse voicing care and concern, as a surprise savvy loaded in activism that inspires and binds to accomplish more.

As the croon of tyre on bitumen can hum into daydreams of what was yesterday and what’s to come tomorrow, mumbles onto foreign lands can feel so familiar. To start over or return, it can be the same and one, as is the knowing and not knowing and catching a whiff to follow your nose when there is no scent.

It knows. As sure as the sun rises each morning and sets each night, even when it hovers in a haze of pink and orange to dance on a horizon and never really set or rise, you know. Deep in your centre, it calls. Even when a kick in the gut strikes in the dim of dark to seethe in swells and spits of molten lava, or the broken of heartache that has no end, in all its fragmented fracture, it knows what to do. It understands what is.

When a touch can send quivers into a rabid fever, when luminous and incandescent eyes of blue, green or brown pine unwavering into you, whether human, canine, feline or other living creature, you know. No matter where you are, what you’re doing or for how long.

It’s there in the last breath in a long line of breaths, bellying out as a knowing in one’s core of all that is. That knowing of instinct, you know it, even when you don’t know it.

And yet the simplest action for all of us is to listen. Hear that call, hear that knowing of instinct. It can flutter in the flap of a butterfly wing, or a bam-shazam punch of tungsten tough.

Stop. Breathe. Listen in silence.

What it is that we know, is in the pits of no end. Hone in on that knowing for in its centre, is the sound of love. Touch it. Stroke it. Gaze upon it. Taste it and smell it. Devour it. That’s all we need to know.

 

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Needling

For some, it's a massage or a facial. For me, it's acupuncture. As soon as I'm overwhelmed by stress, run down or simply in need of TLC (not to mention if ever I have a health concern), I book in for some needling.  Many an issue has been resolved with a few well-placed needles.

 

My favourite thing about acupuncture is that it thinks outside the box and joins unthinkably distant dots.  When one part of your body sounds an alarm bell or even just starts whimpering, the acupuncturist will consult all your other organs and functions – like a kind of body world summit – to find out who's really responsible. 

 

A few years ago, a strange-looking discoloured patch appeared on my body.  I went to the doctor.  She poked me, squeezed me and kneaded me.  "It's probably nothing," she declared sapiently.  "It'll probably go away."

 

I don't care for the word probably where my health is concerned.  The discoloured patch grew in size.  I went to see an acupuncturist.  She said the patch was located along my liver meridian (who said the body doesn't give you signs?).  She examined my tongue.  Liver issues.  Let's treat your liver and see.  

 

The discolouration disappeared within a couple of weeks.

 

It never ceases to fascinate me how my tongue seems to be the spokesperson for the rest of my body, how a Traditional Chinese Medicine-trained practitioner is able to diagnose a condition by studying a person's tongue.  I have vague memories of Western doctors telling me to "say 'Aaah'" when I was a small child.  Did they also use the same method of overview? Is it another skill the West has lost?

 

Chinese diagnosis, of course, uses a way of thinking that can feel very alien to a Western mind, at least at first.  It's just a matter of switching your brain to a different narrative.  You might be told that you have yin or yang deficiency, excessive damp, too much fire, for example.  As I gradually learn to get my head around these concepts, I find that they are extremely accurate as far as I am concerned.  And extremely wise.  Moreover, they convey a panoramic view of health and the body that allows one to see how everything is actually connected.  A method which Western medicine, in its increasingly localised specialisation, would certainly benefit from, in my opinion.

 

I first discovered acupuncture about twenty years ago.  I lifted something heavy awkwardly and my back froze, in excruciating pain.  I couldn't move.  The doctor was called (it was back in the golden days when it was easy to get a GP to visit you at home).  "It's a slipped disc," she said, prescribing pain killers – to be taken at four-hour intervals – and telling me to rest my back.

 

Within fifteen minutes of swallowing the tablets, the pain would plummet at supersonic speed, only to soar back up like a rocket during the fifteen minutes that followed, which left me in pain for the ensuing three and a half hours while I waited to be allowed another dose.  My life degenerated into a yo-yo of pain, mood swings, tears and depression.  "My life is going down the toilet!" I sobbed, a week later, when a friend rang to ask if I was better.  

    

She recommended a Traditional Chinese doctor.  The thought of needles pushed into my skin horrified me, but I was ready to try anything to get my life back.  I somehow made it to the front door and into a taxi.  I cried out at every speed bump.  By the time I reached the doctor, I was a wreck of tears, curses and despair.  The pain wouldn't even allow me to sit down.  The Chinese doctor examined me.  "It's not a slipped disc, it's a muscular spasm," she said.  

 

This was my introduction to the unsuspected connection acupuncture makes between seemingly unrelated dots.  It wasn't into my back the doctor put the needles, as I had expected – it was between my eyebrows.  "Sit down," she said calmly.

"I can't – it hurts... Oh? How did this happen?" 

I moved my hips gingerly, sat down, wriggled some more.  

 

No more pain.  No pain!

 

A few minutes later, I took the rush-hour, crowded bus home, stopped on the way to buy food from the supermarket and cooked my first proper meal in a week.

I look forward to my regular acupuncture sessions.  The practitioner examines my tongue, takes my pulses (yes, in Traditional Chinese Medicine this is a plural) and listens to my concerns or needs.  I lie down.  I generally don't feel any pain when the needles are pushed in.  Sometimes, I can't even feel them.  And then, more often than not, something wonderful and extraordinary happens to me.  I feel as though whirlwinds start to form around the points where the needles are inserted, and spread throughout my body like a warm, invigorating wave.  On occasions, I'll feel a pain or a twinge which will travel across my body, as though flying through a channel, then it disappears.  It feels as though my body becomes a hub of conversations, questions and answers and negotiations.  More often than not, I fall into a deep sleep.  I wake up feeling reborn.  Feeling taller.   Feeling truly, truly wonderful. 

 

I guess there's something to be said for a form of medicine that has been practised and perfected for a couple of thousand years longer than our Western medicine. Old is not always passé.

Scribe Doll

 

With huge thanks to, among others, Rebecca Geanty (https://www.treatnorwich.co.uk)

 

15 November is World Acupuncture Day

 

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Latest Comments

Nicholas Mackey The Bolingbroke Hook
11 December 2018
Thank you, Stephen for taking the time to read and comment. Agreed that this method of acting the ac...
Stephen Evans The Bolingbroke Hook
09 December 2018
What a wonderful memory! I learned Shakespeare this way in college, by putting it on its feet and ac...
Stephen Evans Climbing
30 November 2018
Thank you!
Katherine Gregor Climbing
30 November 2018
Beautiful poem. I love both the meaning and the rhythm.
Monika Schott You know
25 November 2018
Thanks Jitu

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