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Date: 12/12/17

Maddy Prior - "The Rolling English Road" (1997)

In another desperate attempt to distract myself from writing the tedious, tendentious end-of-year piece (and to put you off ever wanting to read it), I'll throw this at you.

It's by the legendary English singer Maddy Prior (she of Steeleye Span, amongst other things), and is a setting of G.K. Chesterton's famous poem The Rolling English Road.

Now, I have, 'ow-you-say, issues with the poem itself. I mean, it's not historically accurate for one thing. Consider the opening line:

"Before the Roman came to Rye, or out to Severn strode..."

(My emphasis)

Dear old Gil was, one would hope, sufficiently scholarly to know that the English hadn't even been invented when the Romans were amo-amat-amassing their booty across the southern part of this island. Nevertheless, in the same way that parts of the indigenous cultures of these islands have been appropriated for suitable use to boost the credentials of régimes comprised of interlopers of one sort or another (as one cynical commentator recently said, the throne of England has been the 'town bike' of monarchies, in that most of the dynasties of Europe have ridden on it), so it is that - here as in all 'official' histories - useful non-English manifestations (Arthur prominent amongst them) can be deployed to grant the boon of honorary Englishry to the lesser breeds without the law (or, indeed, the choice).

For that alone, G.K. should have had three points put on his poetic licence.

The rest of the poem seeks - to use a phrase I once read about the rebarbative John Calvin, the theological Pol Pot of his day - to idealise the peasant condition. No matter that the rolling English pre-prole lived in conditions which were squalid even by the standards of their time; that their lives were, much like many of their beloved monarchs, nasty, British and short; that they owed such well-being as they had - indeed owed their very lives - to the fickle forebearance of a sequence of venal, corrupt, hypocritical thugs whose sense of obligation to others not of their ilk had been successfully eliminated by their descent via the golden sperm of their hyper-acquisitive ancestors; and who were called upon to sacrifice themselves for whatever plunderous conflict their rulers decreed that their god had told them to undertake.

Despite all this, they were English and therefore innately superior to those dangerously learned, reasonable and enlightened foreigners, whose views and actions could therefore be dismissed as being of no account or magnitude.

Fortunately, we have left such days and attitudes far behind us.

So why put this here? Well, it has to be conceded that - for all the commination I have called down upon it, for all the humbugging high-churchery and exceptionalist romanticising - it is nonetheless quite a charming verse, and is clever in its invocation of place-names in the final line of each verse, especially in the last verse where, "...we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green", Kensal Green being the location of one of the most noted crematoria in England. Although it has to be said that, in order to hit off this pleasing trope, Chesterton was forced to abandon the alliterative pattern of all the foregoing verses.

On top of which it's a very good musical setting, composed by Maddy herself along with her collaborators on the Flesh & Blood album, Nick Holland and Troy Donockley.

List ye, yeomen of England! For there is good news yet to hear, and fine things to be seen...

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